Sports documentaries come a dime a dozen. With ESPN continuing their revelatory and definitive documentary series 30 For 30 (and the equally interesting ESPNW backed spin-off 9 For IX) the world of sport and cinema has never been more fruitful and vibrant.
One of the more interesting features to come out of this golden age of the sports documentary is the newly-released-on-Blu-ray feature film Venus And Serena. However, from first time directing duo Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, and producer Alex Gibney, this documentary turns its light on two subjects from a sport that rarely gets the publicity.
As the title obviously points to, the film follows the story of sisters Venus and Serena Williams, possibly the most influential and dominant female tennis players of all time. Narratively woven alongside the sisters and their 2011 season, we are given various talking head interviews interspersed with source archival footage ranging from the pair’s first days on the court up through their most recent accolades.
Their dominance shouldn’t be understated. Very much like a documentary like Michael Jordan To The Max, the film may lack the IMAX compositions of that film, but the blend of subject interviews and chats with those within the world the star(s) fills makes this proof that, for tennis, and female athletes, these two may very well be the most important names in history.
And it is in the directing duo’s direction and narrative structure that this context comes out. An otherwise standard documentary (even down to the nearly insufferable soundtrack from one Wyclef Jean), the drama comes in the dichotomy between a pair of sisters who, in their youth, became legends, only to lose some of that luster following a handful of injuries. Interviewees like John McEnroe and even one President Bill Clinton adorn this film, allowing for the film to have the necessary weight to really do these two amazing sisters justice.
I say amazing, because, as one will find within this film, their story is full of intrigue. Coming out of Compton, California, the chances of these two sisters making it big in tennis seemed unlikely from the get go. With a father who admits to using Venus and Serena’s tennis skills as a way to get the family out of their then troublesome community (a beat that is only briefly mentioned, despite being one of the more intriguing reveals, an admitted flaw in the feature), and a home life that would see their mother and father ultimately divorce, both halves of this split narrative hold within it a great deal of inherent drama and depth.
Aesthetically, it’s nothing groundbreaking. The blending of new and archival footage is seamless and the editing here is absolutely superb, but much of the film is spent watching as people speak to various moments in the lives of these two great athletes. Not willing to simply paint a God-like picture of these two legendary tennis players, the film does look at some of the more intimate aspects of their lives, ranging from Serena Williams’ various court outbursts or both sisters unwillingness to settle down until their careers are over, one of the greater aspects of an otherwise oddly standard sports documentary.
The film does also feel slightly overstuffed. Clocking in at just shy of 100 minutes, the film follows much of the lives of both Venus and Serena (despite the final act of the film being rather Serena Williams-centric), and features insights into everything from their impact as minority female athletes all the way to their impact as fashion icons, ultimately turning the film into something a bit too dense. Never allowing for any one narrative to full get fleshed out, there are glimpses at something far deeper under the cover here (particularly the involvement of their father Richard Williams in their lives), but the jumping from narrative beat to narrative beat can feel overwhelming for those not familiar with the dynamic duo.
Overall, sports fans will find a lot to mine from this picture, with those unfamiliar with this all-time great duo possibly being left rather cold. A tad too breezy for its own good, the competently crafted documentary is an interesting look at one of the most important sports families of all time. Ultimately forgettable, the documentary is now available in a solid Blu-ray from Magnolia. That includes trailers, interviews with both the film’s directors and more. It’s a solid home video release for a film that truly deserves it.