Imagine living every day of your life knowing that you are more famous for not amounting to anything than you are for your actual success. In Josh and Benny Safdie’s documentary, Lenny Cooke, the eponymous subject struggles with that exact reality. The film chronicles Cooke’s life from 2001, when he was ranked as the number one high school basketball player in the nation – higher than than LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony – to the present, as he lives in relative obscurity in Virginia, overweight and struggling to earn a living. The question the film sets out to answer is what went wrong.
The Safdies, making their documentary debut here, weave together a gut-wrenching tale of missed opportunities, sheer chance and reconciliation with the past. Very luckily supplied with hours of footage capturing Cooke in the most pertinent moments of his saga, the Safdies bridge the past to the present with excellent vérité-style cinematography and their keen ability to craft a well-drawn out, perfectly-paced film.
The film started with producer Adam Shopkorn successfully pitching the filming to Cooke back in 2001 after reading about him in an article by Harvey Araton. After Cooke’s career fizzled out, Shopkorn contacted the Safdies, who then filmed Cooke in the present time and pieced together the film as it stands now with Shopkorn’s footage. When Shopkorn began filming Cooke, Cooke was living in a New Jersey suburb with a guardian in her palatial home. Cooke was from Bushwick, but when his mother decided to move to Virginia, Cooke stayed behind in the area on the invitation of his guardian who offered her home so that Cooke could focus on basketball.
Though despite being ranked number one, his foundation crumbled before the camera lens. While he was a gifted athlete, Cooke was extremely unmotivated. There is a telling scene in the documentary of him at basketball camp and he complains to his coach, when asked to come the next morning at 6:30am, that he only wakes up at 8:00am. Another major tipping point happens there, during which time LeBron James’ team beat Cooke’s 24 to 9, making James a rising star and Cooke a fading one. When Cooke turned 19, he was no longer able to play in high school, and after a lack of practice and a few misguided career decisions, Cooke didn’t get drafted the following year. He then played in non-professional leagues until he stopped playing altogether.
While a lot of the success with the film comes from the sheer luck of the camera being there at the perfect moments that pinpointed Cooke’s decline, the Safdies did a rather brilliant job with crafting a fully-realized story with arcs more dramatic than most narrative films out there. The Maysles brothers-like grainy cinematography by Josh Safdie, which seamlessly blurs the past with the present footage gives the film the appropriate intimate feel that it calls for. Much like Grey Gardens, Lenny Cooke takes a similar unflinching approach at its subject in a state of decline. He is filmed, warts and all, creating a kind of raw, sympathetic bond to the man. Cooke is unmotivated, he spends all of the money he receives on Las Vegas trips, prostitutes, clubs, and hangers-on. But he’s a 19-year-old without the proper supervision and guidance. Cooke is a victim of circumstance in many ways. Ranked number one in 2001 and not making the draft in 2002? That reality was unfathomable to Cooke, and perhaps many others, but this film does a lot to communicate the other necessary elements involved in either achieving a level of success or allowing that success to slip away.
Perhaps the most affecting scene in the documentary occurs during Cooke’s 30th birthday party, more than ten years after his exalted basketball victories. His 6’6" frame now hulking and bloated, he laments over his fall to obscurity, that he has to throw his own birthday parties. He drunkenly sings a Mario song to his fiancée, much to her embarrassment. When watching this, I had a visceral reaction of empathy for Cooke – his life spun completely out of control, still unable to reconcile fully what has happened, still living very much in the past.
Despite powerful moments like this one, the movie itself isn’t depressing overall. Cooke can acknowledge the fact that he’s made mistakes in his life. That he didn’t love the game as much as his contemporaries did. He tries to reason that he ended up where he started, since he never played for the NBA. Cooke had the promise of being a basketball great, but as it does in life, shit happened.
The brothers Safdie did a rather remarkable job at showing what went wrong in Cooke’s trajectory. And while Cooke is famous for not becoming a success, the film never judges his decision-making or what became of him in the end.
The Upside: Grainy vérité-style cinematography that bridges together older and newer footage seamlessly, the utter luck of capturing such pertinent footage in Lenny’s younger life, and the Safdie’s keen ability to craft such a well-drawn out and perfectly-paced film out of hours and hours of footage.
The Downside: Without giving spoilers, there’s a trick photography moment at the film’s end which I think some might think is a bit cheesy (though I think it works in context).
On the Side: A New York Times article by Araton from March 2012 mirrors many scenes in the film (Araton is seen interviewing Cooke is in the film), and gives further insight on who Cooke is today. You can read that article here.