Twenty years later and it’s still one of the greatest sports movies ever made.
Actually, no. “Sports movie” is a borderline pejorative. It’s a term that almost condescends and Hoop Dreams is much, much more than a simple basketball movie. Basketball is the engine that drives the film, but it ultimately becomes a gateway into the lives of two boys and two families.
Those boys: Arthur Agee and William Gates, two talented basketball players who have their sights on the NBA. Filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert started their odyssey when Arthur and William were freshmen. For the next four years, their cameras followed the two wunderkinds as they grew in their careers and eventually took wildly different paths to the promised land.
With their basketball trajectory as the backdrop, the filmmakers blend in the home and school lives of Gates and Agee, transforming Hoop Dreams from an interesting sports documentary into an iconic vision of American life. Specifically: American life where it can often be the toughest, in the gang-infested neighborhoods of inner city Chicago.
And that’s what you get for three hours. On the surface, it certainly appears to be an overpowering runtime for a basketball documentary, but you won’t notice; it is an utterly engrossing experience from start to finish. It’s the intimacy that propels Hoop Dreams into legendary status, serving an unparalleled look into the lives of two families over the course of four years. By the time the credits roll, you feel like you know them, like you could easily strike up a conversation with any of the Gates of Agee crew if you ran into them in the mall.
Thank the James/Marx/Gilbert brain-trust here who achieved access that is just ridiculous. Over the four years they shot over 250 hours of footage to eventually boil down to their film. I don’t know how the families got used to it, but they did, and produced some genuinely affecting stuff with the cameras on them.
This massive time commitment is beyond that I can imagine, but the pay-off is worth it. Even now, 20 years after the film premiered, Hoop Dreams retains its power. It looks dated, for sure, what with the videotape, full-frame stock, the cheesy ‘80s score, the stilted narration (it sounds like the PSA these guys were originally charged with making)–but it works.
It’s precisely because of this low-budget, indie feel that the lives of these people resoante. Hoop Dreams is not a slick, Michael Moore-maneuvered production pushing out a specific viewpoint; it feels real. And its realness makes for one of the most intoxicating movie experiences I’ve ever had.
Now it’s time for shameful confession time: Hoop Dreams is my first Criterion disc. But what a way to kick things off. The disc is a loving tribute the film, beginning with a crystal clear transfer (in its original full frame ratio) and a 4.0 surround mix.
Extras include deleted scenes, commentaries from the directors and the kids (recorded in 2005), snippets from Siskel and Ebert’s lauding of the movie, the film’s 1994 music video, a pair of written essays from John Edgar Wideman and Robert Greene, and, the highlight, a brand new 14-minute documentary “Life after Hoop Dreams,” featuring interviews and updates.