New McEnroe Documentary Focuses on the Art of Being a Champion

Films about tennis, especially the pro sport, are rare. But in the last 12 months, there’s been quite a few tennis focused films, both narrative and documentaries. One player who has gotten a lot of interest of late is John McEnroe.  The former Wimbledon and US Open champion was the subject of the recent “Borg vs. McEnroe” film staring Shia LaBeouf. Now a new documentary explores the player, and his dedication to being the best, as something close to a work of art.

“John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” offers a rare, unique look at the Hall of Famer during his run to the 1984 French Open final. This French documentary, directed by Julien Faraut and featuring narration by Mathieu Amalric, uses rarely seen 16 millimeter film footage taken of the then World No. 1 McEnroe along with combining 80’s animation and some iconic music tracks. The film opened to rave reviews at the Berlin Film Festival and is about to premiere this week in the United States in New York, before opening in other cities later this summer.

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When asked about the audience he made the film for, Fauraut says, “Regarding the question of the audience. Although I don’t really think of any particular audience when I make a film, I still think of the “frustrated spectator” inside me. My aim was to make a movie on a tennis genius. A “movie” means it has to be a real proposition of cinema and not only a series of interviews illustrated with stock footage. I hope my film will please tennis fans as well as cinema lovers.”

“Cinema can lie, not sport,” Faraut says in the official press notes, “On a tennis court, John McEnroe runs and suffers. He wins or loses. Those are the only options. There’s no time for editing or special effects. His list of achievements is also something concrete. It is verifiable. You would never think of setting up a rankings list between Mozart, Bach,and Haydn. However, you can easily look at the ATP charts to know if John McEnroe was in front of Jimmy Connors on such-and-such a date or behind Bjorn Borg. This is summarized in the phrase: “Cinema can lie, not sport.” A sort of contradiction that demands a pause for thought. That’s exactly what I wanted to explore and delve into. I also wanted to deconstruct the image of the player/actor who moans and who is impulsive—the stereotyped McEnroe we know from advertisements.”

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Dan Berger, from the film’s distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories said, “Faraut wipes the floor with traditional bio-docs, creating a balls-to-the-wall piece of auteur cinema that somehow integrates music by Sonic Youth, clips from ‘Raging Bull’  and primitive computer animation in a way that actually makes sense.”

In recent years, especially as a tennis television commentator, McEnroe has certainly earned his fair share of criticism from current tennis fans who feels his analysis isn’t the greatest as he often seems not up to date on the current game due to his many off-court interests. That being said, McEnroe as a player, especially in his prime, still continues to fascinate many who watch the sport and perhaps don’t mind McEnroe’s brash personality.

Faraut sees McEnroe as being more at ease with the duality of perceptions he has as a great player and his personality.

“About John McEnroe today. Fortunately (for him) the volcano seems to be extinct. Nowadays, he seems to be much more comfortable with his image, with his relationship with the public. He knows how to build a distance, to make fun of himself. That was not the case before…In my film I try to find the truth that lies underneath the myth. As John McEnroe plays a lot now with his public image, with his “character,” it doesn’t help me at all in this task! My aim was to show him as a professional, playing tennis and not acting. I wanted to discover the tennis player and forget about the character that the public had also created with its expectations to see John McEnroe’s tantrums make the show. Of course, John McEnroe has learned how to take advantage of his tantrums, to re-use the energy of it, but he has never had the power to create the tantrum itself, this emotional volcano that lies inside him. It makes a big difference.”

This new documentary perhaps can offer younger tennis fans, and also those who may have forgotten, what a force McEnroe was in his prime and how his talent, like many artists no matter their craft, is developed and refined through hard work and discipline, while at the same time, allowing their own personality to be recognized through their individual work. For McEnroe, a well-known art collector himself, his canvas was the tennis court. And this new documentary, like a retrospective at a museum of a famous artist, allows all tennis fans a closer, second look at McEnroe at the height of his game.

Learn more about the film and upcoming screenings here.

Photo Credits: Oscilloscope Laboratories

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