Love & Basketball
Sparks fly both on and off the court in this groundbreaking feature debut by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard), which elevated the coming-of-age romance by giving honest expression to the challenges female athletes face in a world that doesn’t see them as equal. Sanaa Lathan (Alien vs. Predator) and Omar Epps (Higher Learning) make for one of the most iconic screen couples of the 2000s as the basketball-obsessed next-door neighbors who find love over flirtatious pickup games, fall apart under the strain of high-pressure college hoops and families, and drift in and out of each other’s lives as they pursue their twin aspirations of playing professionally. Aided by stellar supporting performances and an eclectic R&B soundtrack, Love & Basketball captures the intoxicating passions, heartbreaking setbacks, and sky-high ambitions that mark a young woman’s journey to the top of her game and to lasting love.
The Criterion Collection presents a new Blu-ray edition for Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball, presented here on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
Sourced from a new 4K restoration (scanned from the 35mm original camera negative), Criterion’s presentation is rather gorgeous, which shouldn’t be too big a surprise for a new restoration for film that isn’t that old and was a big studio picture, yet I was still struck by the film texture that is present. Grain is, somewhat surprisingly, a bit heavy, though it's rendered well. It’s not perfect, getting a little noisier in darker areas of a scene, but on average I thought it had a very clean, fine look. Colours are nice, yellows and blues both managing to pop, and black levels look inky while still allowing for excellent shadow detail, even in the film’s darkest scenes.
Outside of some archival footage taken from a video tape source (shots of Magic Johnson for example) the image is clean and film-like throughout. Damage is also not a concern. In all, this was a wonderful looking presentation, and again an excellent example of what a fresh 4K scan can accomplish.
(Criterion’s notes mention this is a slightly longer version than what played in theaters. Based on comments in one of the commentaries I suspect the additional footage may have been inserted into what is still a tame love scene. I am unsure if this is the same edit that was on previous home video releases.)
The film comes with a 5.1 surround soundtrack, delivered in DTS-HD MA. Dialogue is clean and sharp, sticking to the fronts primarily. There are some great sound effects in the stands during some of the game sequences, delivering wide range and superb clarity, the effects mixed around the viewer effectively. The school campus, and other crowded settings, also mix things appropriately through the speakers.
Where the track mostly shows off is in its delivery of the film’s music soundtrack, using the lower frequency to great effect and spreading to all of the speakers where appropriate. The mix also makes sure not to drown out any important dialogue. It sounds great.
The film has received a couple of previous DVD and Blu-ray releases from New Line/Warner Bros., the film even showing up in New Line’s Platinum Series DVD line. It appears Criterion has ported over a few of the features, though not all, starting off with two audio commentaries, the first of which features director Gina Prince-Bythewood and actor Sanaa Lathan. The track ends up being a very pleasant surprise thanks to the loving yet contentious relationship between the film’s director and star. Throughout the track—and other features on the disc—we get a glimpse of a filmmaker who has a set vision for a film in her mind and is determined to get that exact film on a finished print, and it seems one of the things she really struggled with was the casting of Lathan because she didn't match her ideal image of the character. While the star had the look, she apparently couldn’t play ball to save her life, and that, on top of other things, almost led to Lathan being fired during various stages of production, from script readings to actual shooting. The two talk about those tough times, Prince-Bythewood, an athlete herself, being amusingly blunt throughout their conversation. Lathan, too. Without necessarily saying it right out the director admits she just had to get her head around some things, especially how the film was a love story around basketball and not the other way around. Thankfully the director came to terms with all of it.
I’m happy it all worked out and Lathan was able to stay on because it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. And if there were ever any hard feelings during production they don’t come through here, the two getting along just fine, even if they still poke fun at one another: when Prince-Bythewood gives Lathan a hard time about showing off her six-pack in one scene, the actor responds she “earned” showing it off after all the training she had to go through. The two also talk about more pleasant aspects of the production, the other members of the cast (Prince-Bythewood still made Tyra Banks audition for her role), and the surprise success of the film’s release. What’s also interesting is some of the issues the director ran into with New Line while editing the film, the studio seeming to be squeamish at a love scene early in the film, with one note mentioning the woman in the scene wasn’t “enjoying” it enough or that it was a bit too much. There are other little interesting things like that throughout the track touching on how studio execs can react differently to elements in a film, including how they may approach films with a predominantly black cast. All around it’s an entertaining and informative track, one of the better director/actor pairings I recall listening to.
The second track (which looks to have been on New Line’s DVD but not Warner’s Blu-ray) is something along the lines of an “isolated score” track with added commentary, featuring Prince-Bythewood, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire and composer Terence Blanchard. The director and editor just focus on working with the material and putting the film together, sharing stories about covering mistakes (that no one noticed anyway) or, in the case of Shropshire, how to work with a director and convince them to go one with something. I found Blanchard’s contribution (who may have been recorded separately) to be the most rewarding, as he really gets into the art of writing an orchestral score for a film, especially at a time when Hollywood was starting to inch away from that and go with more synthetic/electronically produced scores. The three also touch on working with temp tracks and the difficulty around those because a director will fall in love with that and expect a similar thing with the final score. There is a lot of dead space in this track, but that may be due to the “isolated score” aspect of it. Still, I found the specific technical details offered up rewarding.
Also carried over from previous editions are a collection of deleted scenes, audition footage, and the film’s trailer. The deleted footage consists of eight scenes and runs about 8-minutes. An optional commentary features the director going over why the scenes were originally written and shot before explaining why they were cut, and which were the hardest to take out. I can’t say any of the footage will be missed from the finished film, though it’s funny to just see how awful Monica’s date with the college guy went, and it was also interesting to see the direction Prince-Bythewood wanted to take Tyra Banks’ character in. The audition footage, running 9-minutes, is noted to be testing the chemistry of the film’s actors, one set featuring Lathan and Omar Epps, and then another set featuring Kyla Pratt and Glenndon Chatman, playing the younger versions of Lathan’s and Epps’ characters. Not carried over from previous editions are storyboards, a music video, and a documentary that appears to be about women in sports.
I’m a little surprised that last item didn’t make it to this, but I haven’t seen it: for all I know it could be a puff piece not worth carrying over. Criterion does add a feature that may fill in for it in some small manner, the 22-minute Athletes and Artists and “Love & Basketball,” featuring director Prince-Bythewood, former WNBA player and Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes, and writer-producer-actor Lena Waithe. The conversation between the three, performed remotely, focuses on how the film managed to “speak” directly to the two guests here of the director, representing them in a way no other film had. There is discussion around what was expected of them growing up and the lack of role models for them, which leads to a discussion on how the film fills that gap. The conversation does get rather personal, Prince-Bythewood admitting here that her anxiety around how women athletes would respond to the film caused her to skip a screening that Swoopes had attended, and Swoopes, much to the delight of the director, explains how her wedding had a Love & Basketball theme to it. It’s a subject Criterion has touched on in a few other releases recently, but the conversation ultimately touches on the importance of representation in film and the impact that can have.
Criterion has also produced the 38-minute making-of documentary, Playing for Your Heart, featuring interviews with Prince-Bythewood; actors Lathan, Omar Epps and Alfre Woodard; producer/writer Reggie Rock Bythewood; and basketball adviser Colleen Matsuhara. The documentary is probably about what you expect, but it does get more into that love/hate relationship between the director and star, where Lathan was almost fired simply over how she was rehearsing her lines before a script reading, all because Prince-Bythewood, still new to all of this, didn't understand how actors like Lathan prepare. We also wonderfully get to hear from Woodard and Epps and their stories behind agreeing the roles, despite Epps not wanting to play an athlete again, and the director talks about the many drafts of the script and the director workshops she did to help in developing scenes, clips from those workshops presented here. Accompanying this is a shorter 16-minute feature around editing the film, with the director and editor, Shropshire, going over that process of the film again, though expanding on a few details offered up in the commentary.
The best inclusions are two short films by Prince-Bythewood, the director also offering up a short 4-minute introduction. The 1997 film Progress is a 3-minute film that bluntly questions the progress black Americans have made in the country over the last hundred years. Her 1991 UCLA thesis film, Stitches, is also here. The 31-minute film has more straight forward narrative, focusing on a young up-and-coming comedian and her relationship with her family and boyfriend, the latter of whom is currently putting himself through law school. Slow reveals through the story and her comedy routines paired with her hesitancy about going to a family barbecue her uncle may be attending all help in offering up a portrait of a damaged person who goes through self-destructive fits when facing past traumas. It’s an obviously personal film that is incredibly well made, packing in a lot about its character in a very short runtime. What ends up being most interesting about this film, which has a couple of minor thematic similarities to Love & Basketball (at least around dealing with a relationship and career), is how much darker this film is compared to her first feature, the director in her introduction attributing that to just where she was in her life when making each film.
The release then closes things off with an insert featuring a short essay on the film by writer Roxane Gay. Despite the lack of more academic material or more footage from the director workshops Prince-Bythewood performed when developing the story, Criterion has pulled together a satisfying set of features around the film’s production that I think fans of the film will be more than pleased to dig through.
A rather sharp special edition for the film, delivering an excellent new presentation and a number of involving features around the film’s development and production.