Fans of the NBA will have heard the endless debates on the best basketball players of all time that dominate sports talk shows, podcasts and publications daily. Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James, who is the best scorer of all time, where certain players rank on the top five all-time lists - these hotly-debated topics among others are never-ending and everyone has their own opinion on each one. However, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson has one of the most storied careers of all time.
This look at his life and career comes hot on the heels of Michael Jordan’s ‘The Last Dance’, to which a lot of comparisons will undoubtedly be drawn, but this doesn’t feel like someone else just jumping on the sports documentary bandwagon or something that is trying to take advantage of the buzz generated by Jordan’s eight-part epic. It also arrives as HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ drama set during the “Showtime” basketball era is well into its first season, which Magic has already claimed that he won’t watch and isn’t a fan of. ‘They Call Me Magic’ is Johnson telling his own story. It is an earnest, inspiring and often unflinching look at a sporting legend that will appeal to both basketball diehards and people unfamiliar with the sport and the man himself.
The documentary begins with Johnson’s early career, how he got the name ‘Magic’ and his journey from college in Lansing, Michigan to becoming the first pick in the NBA draft. Magic would end up being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers following a coin toss to decide which team got the first pick. Right from the start, Johnson’s legendary status is conveyed in an almost mythical way and it’s nearly ten minutes before he actually appears on screen in the present day, following a slew of NBA stars and celebrities discussing the impact that he’s had on the world of sports and on their own personal lives.
Much like in ‘The Last Dance’, there’s plenty of fantastic archive footage used throughout ‘They Call Me Magic’. Seeing behind the scenes footage from Johnson’s NBA draft and hearing from executives as they recount the experience today is fascinating and offers real insight into a part of sports history that many younger fans may be unaware of. It also does a good job of conveying the palpable excitement at the time around Magic being drafted to the Lakers and the popularity boom that he helped bring to the NBA, which was struggling back then. This archive footage, combined with present-day interviews continues throughout all four parts of the series and hearing from other superstars such as Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas as they relive their battles and rivalries on the court provides lots for fans to enjoy and no doubt debate for weeks and months to come.
Speaking of celebrity guests, there are plenty of stars here from the world of basketball and beyond. From Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and other NBA legends, the documentary features an A-list lineup also including Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee and even two former US presidents. The impact that Magic has had on the lives of so many people is evident and all of the guests are given ample time to tell their own stories about Magic and his life and doesn’t rely on quick cuts or edited soundbites for dramatic effect.
At four hours long, the series is able to deep dive into every aspect of Johnson’s life both on and off the court and everything you could want to see covered is touched on here including his legendary battles with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, his electrifying All-Star Game appearance and more. It also focuses on the racism that Magic experienced both in his college days and in the NBA during the games against the Celtics in Boston. Magic battled against this not with trash talk, but by silencing his critics on the court by putting on spectacular performances and dominating the game at every turn. Some of the blatant and open racism that Magic and his team faced is actually captured via more archive footage and can be hard to hear, but watching him then step on the court and use it as fuel in his now-legendary games is inspiring.
Episode three, which steps away from basketball and pivots to Magic’s battle with HIV, slows the pace of the story a little in a very deliberate stylistic choice. The third hour is, without a doubt, the most powerful and emotional of the four and follows Johnson’s diagnosis, the immediate aftermath, and his retirement from the NBA. It explores his journey to becoming an activist and working to break many of the misconceptions and stereotypes that surrounded the disease at the time. We get to revisit the infamous Arsenio Hall appearance which sent a chill down my spine and had me feeling quite emotional watching again now.
Parts of episode three can be quite difficult to watch and to its credit, the documentary doesn’t shy away from highlighting Magic’s flaws and showing just how imperfect he was, even at the height of his popularity. It explores his infidelity and there’s one moment in particular featuring a talk show interview that he took part in following his diagnosis that is shockingly frank. Given that this is an authorised documentary that Magic himself is involved in, it could have easily shied away from some of these more candid topics but everything is presented with a real sense of honesty.
The final hour of the series looks at Magic’s transition into business and community activism, the impact that he continues to make today and the legacy that he will leave behind. It sometimes verges on feeling a little self-promotional, but it’s ultimately a very inspiring conclusion and shows someone who has managed to take control of their life at every turn and forge success in the face of extreme adversity. Again, there’s some great archive footage used here and a glimpse at Johnson’s horrifically bad failed late-night talk show is as entertaining as it is cringe-inducing. Magic’s relationship with his kids is also touched on and this is one area that I would have liked the documentary to have focused on a little longer. How he came to terms with his son’s sexuality is one of the most tender parts of the series, but it all goes by far too quickly.
The series is presented with vibrant energy throughout thanks to impeccable direction from Rick Famuyiwa. It feels more frenetic during the basketball portions of the story and really conveys the pressures that Johnson faced as a player - but it’s not afraid to slow down and linger on the more personal moments when necessary and does so with confidence.
‘They Call Me Magic’ is an inspiring look at the human side of a larger-than-life figure and the impact that he has made on the world. There’s a lot here for diehard basketball fans to devour and geek out over, but it never feels inaccessible to a non-sports audience and Johnson’s energetic and charismatic nature will appeal to just about anyone. Some parts can feel a little self-promotional towards the end and there are a couple of areas that I would have liked to have seen touched on in more detail, but it remains captivating throughout its four hours and there’s nothing that feels unnecessary. It’s a fascinating look inside the mind of someone for whom defeat has never been an option, both on and off the court.
'They Call Me Magic' premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 22nd with all four parts available to stream.
James has been a fan of Apple for as long as he can remember. He is a film & TV obsessive and has also written for several publications such as BBC Good Food Magazine. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland and can usually be found drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching Apple TV+ and talking about it with anyone who will listen.