Last November, at the height of the Get Back craze, Jesse Hawken wrote one of my favorite Twitter threads ever. In it, he jokingly pines for a more traditional Beatles documentary, and proceeds to give examples of famous musicians and celebrities giving the blandest possible sound bites about the band. It was full of gems like this. “The whole country was absolutely mad for these four lads from Liverpool. They even had a word for it – they called it Beatlemania!”
Not only was it funny, but it laid bare what has become a cliche of the genre—the pointless celebrity context clip—and simultaneously highlighted one aspect of what made Get Back so great. Since this thread, I have not been able to look at documentaries the same way, and so, at the start of Apple TV+’s new Magic Johnson documentary, They Call Me Magic, I couldn’t help but laugh as the cliche played out in front of me. Here are just some of the faces they trot out within the first two minutes: Snoop Dogg, Stephen A. Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Barack Obama, Jimmy Kimmel. It’s a who’s-who of bland 2022 mouthpieces who seem to be on call for exactly this kind of documentary. (Immediately, I wondered if Bill Clinton would make an appearance, and the answer is, of course, yes.) And, say what you will about me, but I don’t actually give a shit what Barack Obama has to say about Magic Johnson. Especially when this is what he says, verbatim:
“I was a Chicago Bulls fan, but, I gotta say, Magic Johnson was pretty good.”
Wow! And here’s Snoop’s opening quote:
“Magic Johnson, the man… the myth, the legend.”
I don’t mean to pick on Snoop, who was a legend before he became a pop culture commodity, and I don’t mean to pick on Obama, whose public image basically forces him to be anodyne—remember those year-end playlists with one song from every genre?—but this kind of thing is prevalent, where the filmmakers choose fame over substance. Even when they find a subject who belongs, the quotes they highlight follow that increasingly corny style of the Big Pronouncement, as in, “the thing you have to remember about Magic Johnson…this guy changed the game... and at the time, nobody was doing that!” (That quote is made up, but barely.)
The story itself, beyond the filler, is also surface-deep here. They Call Me Magic will inevitably be compared to The Last Dance, the blockbuster early-pandemic Jordan documentary on ESPN. But while that film was propagandistic, it was also extremely well told, and it had as its foundation a wealth of priceless footage from Jordan’s last season. Magic has no equivalent, and the final result is accordingly less compelling and harder to love.
It’s also true that the man at the heart of it doesn’t inspire the same level of fascination. That’s not a knock on Magic Johnson, who had an extremely interesting life. The fact is that Michael Jordan’s sociopathic level of competitiveness, his fixation on real and imagined insults, and his monomaniacal pursuit of winning almost give him the stature of a vengeful god. Magic Johnson is an extremely talented guy who wanted to be liked, and then wanted to be famous, and who slept with a lot of women, but who comes off much flatter on the screen. Thus, the filmmakers have to manufacture drama, or pour in the celebrity filler, or nail you over the head with quick edits and period music, and that’s just to get through four episodes, rather than the ten of The Last Dance.
Here comes the “and yet…” part.
And yet, if you’re a basketball fan? You’ll still probably like this a lot. I know I did. One element that director Rick Famuyiwa nails is stuffing this thing with as much game footage as possible, and to watch Magic Johnson play basketball remains, in 2022, a marvel. A 6’9” point guard, he completely transformed the popular conception of what basketball could be, he played a key role in rescuing the NBA, and though his style of play predicted what the distant future would hold in the sport, he still comes off like a singular talent all these years later. There is something magic about the guy, something poetic, and something enduring. And sure, you can watch Magic Johnson clips on YouTube, but the old footage combined with the narrative of his rise and fall, even told in cliche fashion, is something I am absolutely here for.
I mean, if you’re a basketball fan, is there any chance you won’t get goosebumps when Magic first meets Larry? When Michigan State takes on Indiana State in what is still the most-watched NCAA championship game ever? When episode one leaves you with a cliffhanger in Magic’s first season in L.A., with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar injured and Magic about to lead his team to a stunning road victory all by himself? To each of these questions, I volunteer to speak for hoops-heads everywhere: Hell no.
In short, wearing the hat of a TV critic, They Call Me Magic is slickly made but totally unambitious, and the story is accordingly shallow. Wearing that other hat, though, the childlike hat of someone who came of age just barely after Magic’s heyday, to be able to see him in action, to watch the rivalries play out, and to learn about his and the NBA’s ascent just before Michael Jordan launched them to the stratosphere—this is never anything less than a familiar thrill. When it comes to stories about men like Magic Johnson, the cliche is always better than nothing at all.
They Call Me Magic premieres Friday, April 22nd on Apple TV+
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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