Jun 26, 2008

On Gunnin' For That #1 Spot!

Packed with style and expertly positioned for a theatrical release the day after many of its teenage stars are drafted into the slipstream of NBA superstardom, Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot! unabashedly celebrates the talents an elite class of high school basketball stars as they gather for an all star game at Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park, a place where street ball legends and NBA millionaires have routinely rubbed elbows, traded jump shots and exchanged smack talk.

Packed with familiar hip-hop, much of it the partial product of it’s director, Beastie Boy ringleader Adam Yauch’s directorial debut delivers us, perhaps too briefly, into the lives of ten kids who haven’t paid for sneakers in a long time. Many of whom (UCLA’s Kevin Love and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley for instance) will be immediate familiar to anyone who watched last March’s NCAA tournament. Although one could argue that Peter Gelbert and Steve James’ magnificent 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams or Spike Lee’s He Got Game cover similar territory with a bit more grit and intelligence, Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot manages to be enjoyable and informative, for the casual basketball fan and the obsessive junkie.

Yauch's juxtapositions seem to be more interesting than he realizes; he presses the go button pretty hard at times in his attempts to infuse the film with the energy of his pop music and its clearly not necessary. He quickly guides us into a world of cold realism and talent evaluation on the part of college scouts and sneaker pimps, while sharing the pleasant comraderie of black barbershops with wingman phenom Brandon Jennings or the gentle guidance his ever supportive grandmothers gives him and his extended family on their stoop, while a few rungs down the intraracial class strata, Tyreke Evans learns to play on the hard scrabble streets Chester, Pennsylvania without the comfort of either institution.

Yauch visits people who are “grassroots consultants” for Nike and scamper around in Air Jordan shirts preaching corporate careerism at young men who can't wait to fall in line. It doesn’t escape the viewer or Yauch just how manufactured their existence seems at times, but Yauch doesn’t seem to mind too much. That these teenage athletes, much like their counterparts in tennis and gymnastics, now live in a world where the illusion that anything other than basketball has or could take priority in these “non-professionals” lives is a myth that has been banished to the dust-bin of history. It’s so 1995 to call these kids’ “student athletes”.

Yauch’s film, which presents us with basketball sequences that are slowed down, sped up, played in reverse, repeated and sound designed within inch of their life, is clearly the product of a devoted basketball nerd, but it is perhaps too complacent at times, too willing to gawk with awe at the amazing talents of these young players and not committed enough to exploring their individuals worlds, which offer an at times fascinating glimpse into the cultural, racial and class divides that still exist among Americans, ones that are clearly broached by the transcendent skill of these players. Where else, other than in the worlds of sports and hip-hop, would the comfortable white, upper middle class existence of a Kyle Singler and the lower working class black existence of 16 year old Tyreke Evans so easily mingle?

Perhaps expectedly, Yauch, while occasionally throwing us some House of Pain or 50 Cent, mainly stuffs the soundtrack with Beastie Boys cues, most of which are well picked. He wisely sticks to their Check Your Head/Ill Communication era songs. Sure, I can’t get enough of these Beastie Boys songs either, but the wall to wall music begins to wear thin well before it should. At times the editing style of the basketball footage, especially that of the Rucker Park game that the doc builds to but doesn’t reach until the 1 hour mark, grows stilted and without the graceful pacing that it could have had given the astounding acrobatics on display extra heft. Ultimately, Gunnin' For That #1 Spot! is a noteworthy entry in the "street basketball as metaphor for American life" genre, but clearly with a fan boys fascination as its primary raison d'etre more than the myriad of interesting subjects on its periphery.