Adam Yauch, Beastie Boy turned documentarian ("Awesome; I . . . Shot That"), turns in a crisp, insightful, but emotionally distant look at the best high school basketball players of 2006 with "Gunnin' for That #1 Spot."
The lack of emotion is inherent in the subject: a single playground pickup game.
That playground is Rucker Park in Harlem, where such greats as Dr. J and Wilt Chamberlain earned their nicknames. The game is the first "Elite" contest where 24 of the country's top high school players were invited to play on the famous stage. Years earlier, these teenagers had been labeled as legitimate professional prospects (many are involved in the current NBA draft), and by 2006, their career tracks were settled. The game then, as colorful as it is, means next to nothing to them. It's essentially an opportunity to show off.
In the first half of the film, Yauch focuses on eight players: Michael Beasley (from Upper Marlboro), Donte Greene (from Baltimore), Jerryd Bayless, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Kevin Love, Kyle Singler and Lance Stephenson. Yauch combines extremely rough home video digital footage with discreet special effects to sketch capsule versions of their childhood careers. In doing so, he tells eight variations on the same story: boys whose exceptional physical talents were recognized early and carefully tended by their families. He also interviews relatives, coaches, athletic ratings "experts" and others who have an interest in these kids. That's when he makes understated points about the people who want to influence or manipulate the young players and the ones who genuinely care about them.
The film's second half is the game. New York is introduced through nifty high-definition helicopter shots that beautifully distort Manhattan. The eight players are divided between the blue and white teams, so which side wins is meaningless. To keep things interesting, the game is edited as an over-caffeinated highlights reel with rewinds and multiple replays of particularly creative passes and spectacular shots. It's cool and forgettable.
For all the flash and dazzle, "Gunnin' for That #1 Spot" never comes close to the power and intimacy of 1994's "Hoop Dreams." The comparison may be unfair, but, given the subject matter, it's inevitable.
-- Mike Mayo (June 27, 2008)
Contains strong language.