' ' Cinema Romantico: Lenny Cooke

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Lenny Cooke

The 2013 documentary “Lenny Cooke” takes its name from the athletic phenom who in 2001 was the highest rated high school basketball player in the country, ahead of such future luminaries as Carmelo Anthony and, yes, even LeBron James. That’s why a filmmaker, Adam Shopkorn, followed Cooke around in 2001 with a camera, subsequently losing touch with his subject right around the time, it would seem, when Cooke’s bright prospects took a hit. A decade later, however, Shopkorn got in touch with the Safdie Brothers, Benny and Josh, basketball fans as their recent “Uncut Gems” goes to show, about helping finish the film. The Safdies poured through the footage, tracked Cooke down and captured the ex-ballplayer a decade out from his ostensible glory days. If that suggests a disconnected documentary, “Lenny Cooke” entirely hangs together, even when stock footage of the 2002 NBA Draft where Cooke is not picked betrays that he has gone MIA and crude analog video of the doc’s first half gives way to a more professional looking back half. If anything, this denotes the two distinct acts in Cooke’s still-young life, underlining all the ways in which he has changed and those in which he has not seemed to change much at all. This is made explicit in the transition from youthful, baby-faced Lenny to the filled-out adult version, cruelly conveying what it means to get old in an instant, like the daguerreotype in “A Quiet Passion.” “Lenny Cooke”, it turns out, isn’t so much about Lenny Cooke as it is about a conversation between two Lenny Cookes.

The Brothers Safdie admirably eschew many of the traditional sports documentary trappings, mostly forgoing talking head interviews to almost entirely construct “Lenny Cooke” through archival footage, rendering less an overview of the person than a dramatic film with Lenny as the main character. Whole scenes play out at length and backstory is intrinsic, like Lenny waiting in a bus station with his kid which is the moment we realize he has a kid, letting the audience wrap its head around this revelation in real time, providing a crucial sense of intimacy, like we are in on Lenny’s story rather than having it relayed to us through a hazy or gauzy filter. Occasionally, Lenny talks to the camera but these moments never come across like interviews, more like monologues, not rehearsed but unfiltered, sometimes so much that you swear you even catch him in the moment, by a look on his face, not exactly buying what he’s selling.

The basketball footage is mostly limited to summer camps, those untoward congregations of players, coaches, agents, hangers-on, etc. In workouts, Lenny’s indifferent work ethic readily manifests itself, not just in being late and not-so-sneakily opting out of mandatory push-ups but his mischievous smile, where he just looks like a kid who thinks he knows best. The centerpiece, though, is a camp showdown with the future King, LeBron, like a ghost in “Lenny Cooke”, what we know he will turn into hovering. And LeBron gets the best of Lenny, winning their game on a last-second shot while his rival struggles, appearing, to untrained eyes, frequently a step slow, a sequence scored to Yusef Lateef’s 1969 Like It Is, evoking the sorrowful sensation of something slipping away. And the track becomes Lenny’s leitmotif, returning in the Twenty-Tens footage where a bigger, slower Lenny balls out with his friends, the music evincing pain amid playfulness. And though in one soliloquy to the camera Lenny claims basketball was never his passion, in a late night scene, on his couch and getting a jump on a hangover with a snack, he watches LeBron highlights on TV, his melancholy laid bare in the look washing over his face.

This image of Lenny beneath the blankets, watching LeBron, demonstrates how Benny Safdie, who edited the movie, finds echoes between their footage and Shopkorn’s. This moment arrives at the end of Cooke’s 30th birthday party, a scene juxtaposed against his 20th birthday at a restaurant in Brooklyn where he declares that he will spurn college, sign with an agent and enter the NBA Draft where, alas, he is not selected. The latter is also where Shopkorn loses touch with Cooke, save for a brief curbside scene where Lenny consults with his agent, a guy who comes across more like a boiler-room stock salesman; you don’t have to see anything else to know his client is getting screwed.

There is a moment young Lenny listens to NBA coach Mike Fratello lecture on the financial rigors of adulthood. And if afterwards Lenny says the message made a mark, older Lenny essentially says it did not leave a mark at all. The moment looms even larger when we learn Lenny has become a motivational speaker, a living, breathing representation of Fratello’s warning. But then, the only person we see Cooke motivating is, through an impressive bout of special effects, his younger self, a stunning, sorrowful evocation of the age-old question If You Could Go Back In Time, What Would You Tell Yourself? It doesn’t really look like young Lenny is listening.

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