Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Michael Jordan to the MAX (2000)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - Up close some heroes get even bigger.

The action is on! Michael Jordan explodes on screen in this box office hit - "the most exciting live-action IMAX movie ever". Follow Michael Jordan's last basketball season as he leads the Chicago Bulls to their sixth NBA Championship Michael Jordan To The Max provides a rare glimpse of Michael Jordan on and off the court. Featuring electrifying on court action and candid interviews with Phil Jackson, Phil Kerr, Doug Colling, Willie Mays and Ahmad Rashad. Get ready to experience some of the greatest moments in modern sports history from one of the most dominant sport legends of all time.

Director: Don Kempf, James D Stern
Cast: Michael Jordan
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - single-layered; 12 chapters; Not Rated; 46 min.; $19.98; street date 2/13/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Directors/Producers James D. Stern and Don Kempf Plus Producer Steve Kempf; 21-minute “Behind the Scenes” Featurette; 2-Minute “Michael Jordan Bullet Time”; Three Trailers; One TV Spot; Michael Jordan Stats and Filmmakers’ Biographies; Reviews.
Purchase: DVD | Playing for Keep: Michael Jordan and the World that He Made - David Halberstam

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/B

Although the vast majority of IMAX movies have focused on exotic places and creatures, a few have looked at specific human topics. As far as I know, the first of these was 1991’s The Rolling Stones At the Max, a concert program that offered material shot during the band’s 1990 “Urban Jungle” tour of Europe.

Despite the emphasis on people, the Stones are larger than life, so they made sense for the oversized IMAX format. Not many human subjects are suited for such an approach, and I guess that’s why nine years elapsed before what I believe is the next person-centered IMAX movie, 2000’s Michael Jordan to the Max.

In case you don’t know, Jordan played basketball and was very good at it; in fact, many people feel he’s the best basketball player ever, and he was voted ESPN’s top athlete of the 20th century. If you didn’t know about Jordan’s career, you probably should get out more, but in that unlikely event, MJ to the Max will let you know about his greatness.

Boy, will it let you know! I won’t dispute his dominance on the court and his immense fame and popularity. Only a fool would try to do so, although I’m not sure he was truly the greatest athlete of the last century; for obvious reasons, such debates will always be slanted toward more recent players, and comparisons across generations are nearly impossible to make in any sort of objective manner.

Nonetheless, Jordan was an amazing talent and an incredible player, as most will agree. But did MJ to the Max need to be so overwhelming overwrought in its attempts to tell us this? I don’t think so, and the program would have worked better without its overt fawning.

MJ to the Max provides a minor biography of Michael but it focuses on his final championship run during the 1997-98 season. The producers of the movie lucked out on their decision to film the Bulls’ playoff string for that period, since not only did they win their sixth championship in eight years (Jordan spent all or most of the other two seasons in retirement) but they ended with the appropriate bang; Jordan won the sixth and decisive game with a shot that fell during the contest’s waning moments.

In addition to the game footage that takes us through the playoffs, we see new interview clips of Jordan plus a number of snippets in which others - such as Bulls coaches and players plus his mother and various interested observers - tell us about Michael. These pieces are also interspersed with some vintage material such as old TV commercials and photos of younger Jordan.

MJ to the Max doesn’t pretend to be a full biography, but I still found the over-glorification of its subject to be the program’s main flaw. This is more hagiography than biography, and the fact that all of the praise takes away from the movie’s main attraction - prime game footage - makes these aspects even more tiresome.

It’s the show’s excessive emphasis on non-game shots that makes it less than successful for me. The Stones film worked because that’s all it was: a close-up, “you are there” look at a concert. MJ to the Max too often forgets its purpose and it becomes very ordinary at those times. Much of the program feels like an ordinary TV biography and doesn’t really take advantage of the IMAX format.

When the film sticks to what it does best - which is present crystal-clear images - MJ to the Max becomes fairly interesting. Although I knew the ending of the Bulls’ playoff run, the movie still made the drive interesting, and the cameras captured the events nicely. At times, MJ to the Max was able to replicate the fervor that surrounded the Bulls in those days, and we occasionally got a glimpse of what made Jordan so special.

Too occasionally, unfortunately, as MJ to the Max flitted about with too many different forms of photography to become a genuinely engrossing experience. Put simply, the filmmakers tried too hard to create an all-encompassing work within the time limits of the IMAX format. All they needed to do was show a progression of images from the playoff games with narration and the movie would have worked wonderfully; the largely-uninformative interview snippets should have been axed and the focus should have stayed firmly on game settings.

At its best, Michael Jordan to the Max provided an involving and compelling look at one of the all-time great athletes. However, much of the program avoided shots of Jordan at work and stuck with drab interviews of the man and those who adore him. On an IMAX screen, the impact of the game shots would be enough to overcome the movie’s flaws, but that’s not the case on a TV, and that’s why this film ultimately seemed largely unsatisfying to me; a video of game highlights would have worked just as well.

The DVD:

Michael Jordan to the Max appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The dimensions confused me. I was under the impression that IMAX features are shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, so this film’s 1.85:1 dimensions seem illogical. Was the presentation cropped for the home video release? Not that I can tell; it seemed properly framed to me. Nonetheless, the issue remains unclear.

Unlike the picture itself, which appeared very solid for the most part. Though much of the film was shot with IMAX equipment, a lot of parts came from a variety of other sources. Nonetheless, most come through well. Game footage seemed absolutely fantastic. These scenes displayed crisp and detailed images that were brightly and accurately colored; they really seemed exceptionally vivid and life-like.

Other sequences generally fare well, but they don’t work as nicely. The Jordan interview pieces seemed acceptably strong, though I felt the picture could appear very slightly muddled and soft at times, and black levels came across as mildly drab. Some of the other material found in the movie could display a few flaws; on occasion, I noticed a little grit and a couple of nicks. As a whole, MJ looked very strong, but the wide variety of different materials used for the program meant that it couldn’t consistently maintain the IMAX quality. As such, though the game shots were nearly-immaculate, other sequences seemed a little weak at times, and my overall grade fell to a still-positive “B+”.

One note about film stocks: during the DVD’s audio commentary, we learn that 35mm had to be used for super-slow-motion footage during the games, since apparently IMAX doesn’t lend itself to that style. These shots were then blown up to match the IMAX material. The film’s creators crow about how good these images look and state that they feel anyone would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the 35mm footage and the IMAX shots. If this is the case - and I’m not arguing that it isn’t - then what’s the point of going to the expense to use the IMAX equipment? Why not just shoot all of these films in 35mm and blow them up for the huge screen? Honestly, this seems to be a logical extension of what they say, at least to me.

MJ to the Max includes a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The soundfield mainly spread the movie’s music across the various speakers. At times, some effects appeared as well - I heard dribbling from a side channel, and then the “swish” of the ball going through the hoop in the other - but these generally stayed fairly subdued. That wasn’t the case for the music, which often blasted actively from all five speakers. The tunes added a nice level of involvement that made the piece work well.

Audio quality seemed generally positive. Most dialogue came across as warm and natural; Laurence Fishburne’s narration appeared especially crisp and distinct. However, I detected some edginess to the speech heard in Jordan’s interviews; these problems were minor but they still seemed noticeable. The modest effects sounded clear and accurate, and the music was bright and vivid. The various tunes came across as loud and bold, and they also boasted very solid low end. As a whole, MJ offered some tight and tight bass, and the entire soundtrack nicely bolstered the program.

MJ to the Max offers a few supplemental features. We get an audio commentary from co-directors/co-producers James D. Stern and Don Kempf plus co-producer Steve Kempf; all three men were recorded together for this track. While I didn’t find the commentary to offer any truly terrific tidbits, it nonetheless provided a generally interesting experience. The men mainly cover technical details of making the film, but they also add personal experiences in regard to the subject - Stern is a major Bulls fan - and create a fairly enjoyable piece.

We also find a “Behind the Scenes” program that lasts for 20 minutes and 50 seconds. For the most part, this segment concentrates on the making of the “bullet-time slam dunk” that opens the movie. We also get a few details on the rationale for the project and other general issues, but the main focus sticks to the special effects-heavy opening. This isn’t a bad thing, as we learn some nice information about the techniques used, and we also get to see some informal shots of Jordan from the set. Unfortunately, we never hear from MJ himself; I’d like to hear why he decided to become involved in the project. Despite the absence of such a discussion, this mini-documentary provided an interesting experience.

In a similar vein is a one-minute and 50-second look at the “Bullet-Time Slam Dunk”. This piece strongly focuses on the technical aspects of the movie’s opening shot but it does nothing to explain the work. Instead, we simply watch a variety of effects shots all crammed together and backed with a pulsing rock tune. I thought it was a little dull, but no harm, no foul.

A few other minor extras round out this DVD. In “Michael Jordan and Filmmakers” we find brief biographies for seven of the people behind the movie plus stats for Jordan’s play-off and regular season careers. “Reviews” provides positive notices about the film from the Calgary Sun, the New York Post, and the Chicago Sun-Times, while “Trailers” includes three different theatrical ads for MJ to the Max plus one TV spot.

Although Michael Jordan to the Max offers a nice little package, I remain unenthusiastic about the program itself. The movie features too much fawning and not enough game footage and ultimately fails to make a mark as anything other than a half-rate biography. The DVD offers very solid picture and sound plus some decent extras, but the weakness of the main program makes it a disc to skip for anyone other than the most avid Jordan fan.

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