Kobe Bryant—ruthless competitor, borderline sociopath, legend, and one of the most polarizing players in the history of the NBA. The folklore surrounding Bryant reads like an urban legend: He ventures out into the desert for 40-mile bike rides in the middle of the night, he practices without the ball in a zen-esque manner, he starts training hours before he’s supposed to. In Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, the Grantland editor in chief reveals an email sent to him that perfectly sums up the difference between the almost-mythical Bryant and his muse, Michael Jordan.
"[A] reader named Chris Rider sent me a fascinating hypothesis: He thought you could define what was most important to every basketball star in one word. For Jordan, Chris believed it was winning. ("Hands down, all he wanted to do was win. And that’s overused for a lot of athletes but not him.") For Kobe, it was "greatness."("Yes he’s going to win some, but only because he wants to be considered great and that will be a by-product at times.)"
Directed by Gotham Chopra, son of holistic-health mogul Deepak Chopra (Bryant has executive production credits), the film spends equal time delving into the star’s past, present, and, ultimately, his future. It’s a portrait of an all-time great approaching the twilight of his career, while simultaneously dealing with the mental and physical baggage that comes with the territory.
The film is minimalist in its approach, but stylish in its execution. Black-and-white scenes are interwoven with grainy, colored home videos and old game footage. It’s intimate: Bryant spends the majority of the film speaking to the camera in a dimly lit room; his face illuminated by what little light is available. In his one-on-one time with the camera, he's compelling. He’s candid and animated, unafraid to utter expletives when the story calls for it. But Bryant is as calculating as ever, his thoughts always coming across as carefully constructed.
The film is defined by its contrasts—silence and noise, young and old, rehabilitation and health—but it manages those reversals with grace. Silent scenes of personal trainers massaging ailing parts of the star’s 37-year-old body showcase the perils of rehab, while euphoric footage of a young Bryant harkens back to easier times.
The most compelling part of the documentary lies in a part of his life that has—until this point—remained relatively unexplored. In Muse Bryant opens up about time spent in Italy with his father, former NBA player Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, who spent seven years plying his trade overseas. While his move to the country at age 6 was an adjustment, the documentary reveals that it was his return to Philadelphia—at the age of 13—that would effectively shape the rest of his life.
Once back in the U.S., Bryant struggled to fit in as a teenager and often found himself ostracized by his peers. "It was different. I didn’t understand the slang, I was a little Italian boy, I didn't understand the fashion … and I couldn't spell, so the teacher told my mother that I was probably dyslexic," he mentions in the film. "It was like somebody took me and dropped me in a bucket … in a tub of ice cold water, because it shocked the shit out of me." For the player, this would be the moment when basketball, previously just an enjoyable activity, would become more of a sanctuary.
"No matter what happened in life I could step on the basketball court and let my game speak to that. And that feeling of playing with that rage was new to me. And I fucking loved it," he says. This kind of backstory, though not a revelation, gives Bryant's career some much-needed context.
It’s usually wise to be wary of a documentary whose subject had a hands-on role in its production. This involvement can lead to carefully crafted narratives, with the end result being an ego-stroking endeavor, as has been seen with other stars. While Muse isn't quite a whitewashed narrative, there are instances in the film where Bryant’s influence was clearly self-serving: Some of the more controversial details of his life are left relatively untouched.
When speaking about his highly publicized 2004 sexual-assault allegation, Bryant is emotional, but these scenes are also ambiguous. The word "rape" itself is never mentioned—it would later be revealed reveal the victim was lying about various details surrounding the sexual encounter—but he still leaves the accusation itself out.* The language used to describe allegation is somewhat trivial; he uses words like "the ordeal" and "my mistake." Still, this part of the documentary reveals the player at his most vulnerable as he opens up about his guilt for his wife Vanessa’s miscarriage, which happened during that period.
Pivoting from his personal life, the film also attempts to justify some of Bryant’s more egregious acts on the court, namely his selfishness and his high-profile falling out with former teammate Shaquille O’Neal. There’s the sense that almost every one of his shortcomings can be justified by some life event to the extent that they make him appear somewhat inculpable.
His anger on the court? That can be attributed to his will to succeed. His selfishness? He couldn't fit in when he moved back to America at 13 and had to become self-sufficient so, of course, he’s just used to looking out for himself.
But for all Muse’s imperfections, its real success is in the way it humanizes one of the greatest players in basketball history. Its very design prevents it from being an objective analysis: Apart from Bryant, no one else is interviewed over the course of the 82 minutes. In that way, it’s more of a cinematic memoir. Right or wrong, the conclusions he draws matter less than the revelation of what Bryant himself believes made him the person he is today, provided with an openness his fans haven’t seen before.
* This post originally stated that the sexual-assault case against Kobe Bryant went to trial. The case was dropped before proceedings began. We regret the error.