In a recent interview with Chuck Klosterman for GQ, fading Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant gave a good sense of what it’s been like for him to be an elite athlete in the early 21st century. These days, it’s not just about on-court performance any more. It’s about brand-management, and navigating through controversies and scandals—some of which have been of Bryant’s own making, and some not. The portrait Klosterman paints is of a man as lonely as he is driven, approaching the end of a storied career that he hasn’t enjoyed all that much.
The Showtime documentary Kobe Bryant’s Muse offers a different perspective, but not necessarily a different conclusion. Bryant produced the film, and is the only person interviewed for it. He sits in a darkened studio, surrounded in a faint halo of light, and looks straight into the camera while telling his life story. He talks about growing up in Italy, where his dad played pro basketball, and briefly covers what it was like to become a high school sensation before moving straight to the NBA—back in the days when teenagers could still do that. He gushes over his wife Vanessa and the birth of his daughters, and describes the feelings of shame and panic when it looked like he was going to lose his family in the wake of a rape accusation against him. (Tellingly, Bryant never says exactly why his marriage was in trouble, either because he assumes the viewer already knows or because he’d still rather not get into it.)
Mostly though, Bryant explains how and why he decided to embrace the villain role that he’s been thrust into over the past decade. That snarling ferocity is the “muse” in Kobe Bryant’s Muse.
In between the interview and the clips of Bryant’s key games and moments, director Gotham Chopra cuts in black-and-white footage of Bryant going through rehab, after what many assumed would be career-ending surgery on his achilles tendon. These scenes are quiet and spare, with very little conversation and few indicators of Bryant’s talent, wealth, or celebrity. Instead, they’re about the hard grind of getting ready to step back onto a basketball court. The unspoken message of the rehab scenes is that Bryant wouldn’t go through all this if he didn’t have something more than mere will goosing him along.
Chopra previously made the documentary Decoding Deepak, about his complicated relationship with his father, the famed New Age guru. Kobe Bryant’s Muse proceeds from a similar spirit of inquiry, looking to get into the head of one of this era’s greatest—yet least-loved—basketball players. But the film might’ve had a better chance of hitting its target if Bryant weren’t so directly involved. It’s missing those other voices, who could articulate what Bryant’s leaving unspoken: about his brush with infamy, his stormy relationships with his teammates and coaches, and the way he’s gone from being a phenomenon to a player that non-Laker fans eagerly root against. Also missing is much in the way of context or admiration for Bryant’s gifts. (For that, look to Spike Lee’s excellent documentary Kobe Doin’ Work, which borrows a conceit from the film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait in following its subject closely with multiple cameras over the course of a single game.) What Chopra has mostly made here is an apologia.
It’s a beautiful-looking apologia though, from the stunning helicopter shots of the Staples Center to the stark images of Bryant struggling to pick up metal balls with his toes after his injury. And it’s not like Bryant doesn’t make a strong case for himself. It’s one thing to read stock quotes about the drive to succeed in a magazine profile. It’s very different to hear the man talk, with convincing emotion, about how he felt like an outsider in high school because, “I was a little Italian boy,” or to hear him describe his early years with Vanessa, sleeping in on the weekends and then spending the day at Disneyland, like the kids they were. One benefit to Bryant coming of age in the public eye is that there’s video of almost everything important that’s ever happened to him, and Chopra makes good use of it all, dwelling on the baskets Bryant missed in a key playoff game at the start of his NBA career, and even digging up the footage of when Bryant first met Vanessa on the set of a music video.
Meanwhile, Bryant tells his tale with a kind of cruel inevitability: He was a loner, he fell in love, he betrayed that love, and then he found a way to draw on his disgust to make himself stronger. At the end of Kobe Bryant’s Muse, Bryant describes his achilles scar as “beautiful,” but he’s really talking about all the mistakes and setbacks that helped him become a champion.
Does the sense of satisfaction that Bryant expresses in this film counteract the impression he’s given in the past of taking no pleasure in his accomplishments? Yes, to an extent. At the least, people who still consider themselves Kobe Bryant fans should be pleased to discover that he can be happy. But for those who grudgingly admire Bryant’s game but find the man himself hard to love, Kobe Bryant’s Muse also has a few fleeting moments that should confirm their point of view. During one of the rehab scenes, an older gentleman at the gym encourages Bryant to get better and to get back to his team, while Bryant smiles thinly and barely acknowledges the best wishes. The end result of Bryant’s methods of motivation is that he shrugs off positivity, because it isn’t anything he can use.