Friday Film Review--"McEnroe"
Love him or hate him, John McEnroe is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Over the course of his career, he won 155 combined titles – more than any man in the game’s modern era -and broke more than his fair share of tennis rackets. The new Showtime documentary McEnroe takes a deep dive into the psychology behind tennis bad boy.
The film begins with John McEnroe’s upbringing – he grew up in Queens, the oldest of three boys, with a boisterous and domineering father. The film doesn’t spend much time on his mother’s influence, although she’s always seen at his matches with a perfectly styled, blunt haircut and fashionable attire.
McEnroe was a perfectionist from an early age. His dissatisfaction with A minuses on his report card in elementary school was foreshadowing of a man possessed by perfectionist demons.
Those demons plagued him on the tennis court where his outbursts and temper tantrums earned him the name “superbrat” by the British press.
Extensive interviews with icons like Bjorn Borg, Patty Smyth, McEnroe’s wife, Keith Richards and Billie Jean King and McEnroe’s children paint a colorful and troubled McEnroe. Smyth describes him as highly artistic, intense, and probably on the spectrum. Billie Jean King gives a portrait of an artist on court who was the most exciting player to watch. The interviews are wrapped with archival footage of the 70s and 80s.
McEnroe was often hanging with the Rolling Stones or on the arms of a super model dancing the night away at Studio 54. And the drugs! Boy, there were drugs!
Sometimes the movie feels more like a psychological thriller than a sports film. The director, Barney Douglas, made choices that felt a little out of step with the narrative, but it was beautiful to watch: time stamped images of McEnroe strolling through the empty streets of New York City, dressed in a trench coat, hands in his pockets, a man revisiting his past; a standalone phone booth in a darkened street, loudly ringing, only to be answered by his father in voice-over. All accompanied by ghostly music, and computer images that harken back to some films of the 70s.
I would recommend the movie. But as a tennis fan I walked away with an existential quandary…Is tennis worth it? The ups, the downs. The loneliness and the desire to win at all costs.
Watching the U.S. Open and McEnroe calling the shots this weekend, I will be left with his words, “Tennis is a microcosm of life if you can handle it.”
McEnroe is available for streaming on Showtime.