Readers of this establishment might know John McEnroe best for his cameos in classics such as 'Mr Deeds', TV's '30 Rock' or 'Don't Mess with the Zohan', but he was actually a prolific tennis player back in the 1970s and 80s. I'm kidding - of course, everyone knows John McEnroe - he's that guy that was one of the best tennis players of all time, but is probably most known for yelling at umpires, "you can't be serious!" Well, if Barney Douglas' ('The Edge') new documentary 'McEnroe' has shown audiences anything, it's that he can be serious.
And it's that kind of cheesy line you won't see much of in this in-depth look into the man behind the anger. I love tennis; it's a sport that pits two athletes against one another with nobody else by their side. The victor needs to rely on so much more than talent, needing excess amounts of mental strength, tenacity and will in the world's most isolating game. It's this very isolation that tips so many of them over the edge, with the sport being infamous for its outbursts and polarising characters, most recently Australian Nick Kyrgios. Therefore, a look inside the game's best known agitator was an opportunity too good to turn down for both Douglas and McEnroe himself.
But to what extent of a look into McEnroe the person would audiences be privy to? Sport documentaries can sometimes suffer the burden of focusing too much into particular matches or specific moments of a career that the target audience would know about and have seen much of before. 'McErnoe' succeeds when it manages to weave through the specifics of the sport, and focus on the relationships that ultimately defined what kind of a person he is.
Douglas was able to round up a very impressive list of interviewees, from Billie Jean King to Keith Richards, but it's the contributions from his family members as well as arch-nemesis Björn Borg that are really impressive and shape the films message.
The ying to his yang, the Nadal to his Federer, Borg and McEnroe was the greatest tennis battle of a generation. It drove both players to the edge, Borg leaving the sport in his prime, and McEnroe subsequently losing much motivation. This fierce rivalry is subject to many documentaries and even the 2017 film 'Borg vs McEnroe', but this reflective approach to their time on court is a welcome and refreshing look behind the curtain. It makes for very interesting viewing for tennis fans, but it's the discussions with family that truly drive the heart and purpose of this film.
The most interesting aspect of 'McEnroe' is his relationship with his father, and how that ultimately impacts his on-court behaviour, and the relationships with his own wife and children. We might call it many different things now in hindsight, but McEnroe's father clearly suffered throughout his life, and McEnroe still feels those effects today. In essence, this therapeutic reflection from McEnroe ends up guiding where this documentary will go, and defines what kind of character he is.
Audiences will get glimpses into the stories of his drug addictions, his unparalleled on-court success, his infidelity and of course, his rage.
Audiences will get glimpses into the stories of his drug addictions, his unparalleled on-court success, his infidelity and, of course, his rage. However, so much of this film tries to reevaluate what this rage stems from and what it actually means. He is a fierce competitor, crippled by his strive for perfection and the pressures that come with the spotlight. He finds his place in the world eventually, or as his wife puts it, "the bad boy who turned into the good man."
These interviews are cut between on-court footage as expected, but also of the camera following McEnroe as he walks the streets in the middle of the night. Frankly I didn't quite grasp what this was all about and found it a little bit weird. Was it highlighting his torment? Or perhaps showing us how McEnroe, for all his flaws, is still adored and is one with the country?
'McEnroe' is at its best when those closest to him pour their hearts out and dissect him as a family man. Of course the tennis is interesting, but there is little audiences would not have seen before, and the moments of the film that do focus on the tennis are weaker for it. It is actually Borg who ultimately teaches McEnroe the most valuable lesson, and likewise the main takeaway of the documentary. Professional success will never be the greatest measure, but it is in all the other parts of life along the way that will define your happiness.
For anyone after a deeper look into an idolised athlete, this film will certainly deliver. However, there is not much here to shake anything up, and there are superior materials out there that discuss the psychological aspect of sport. For one, if there are any tennis fans out there looking for something truly captivating, I would recommend 'Open', the autobiography of Andre Agassi. 'McEnroe' is not that, but it does deliver on the premise and it is an honest and reflective portrayal of one of sports great characters.