They Call Me Magic documentary review: Charting a life nothing short of miraculous

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 (Apple TV+)
(Apple TV+)

Call it nominative determinism, or simply a fair description, but the life and career of the man they named Magic Johnson has been nothing short of miraculous — and this four-part docu-series proves it.

He’s the preternaturally gifted basketball player, rightly acclaimed as one of the sport’s all time greats, whose career was cut short by HIV — a pain he then harnessed to spur himself towards becoming a stigma-busting figurehead and, later, a wildly successful businessman. “When somebody gives you the nickname, ‘Magic’,” says former general manager of the LA Lakers, Jerry West, during the first episode, “what do you expect?”

The moniker, first coined by a local Michigan journalist after seeing a teenage Johnson annihilate his opponents at a high school basketball game, and the hugely charismatic, million-watt-smile persona it soon became attached to, is explored at length in this documentary. It’s held up as one of the driving forces behind Johnson’s incredible sporting achievements, helping the Lakers to claim five NBA championships during the Eighties, and the magnet that drew devoted fans from both the Los Angeles area and beyond.

But it’s also just one side of what his wife, Cookie, describes in the documentary as a “split personality”. To his family members and business partners, Magic is, instead, simply referred to by his birth name, Earvin. As his son, Earvin III aka EJ, says at one point, away from the limelight his father is something of an “introvert”.

It’s these personal insights that prove the most compelling part of the documentary. Up until a quarter of the way through the third episode, as we get to the heart-stopping moment in 1991 when Johnson is given his positive HIV diagnosis, this film is more or less a sporting hagiography. It’s exciting, for sure — it’s hard to make a documentary boring when you’re blessed with archive footage of someone whose near-supernatural talent revolutionised a sport — but it’s nothing we haven’t heard or seen before.

Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and his wife Cookie (Apple TV+)
Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and his wife Cookie (Apple TV+)

There are some fascinating stories tied into it all. We’re shown how his ferocious on-court rivalry with the Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird, himself one of the NBA’s finest ever players, was pitched by fans and the media as a war between black and white America; battle lines that are connected by director Rick Famuyiwa back to the hardship of busing and school segregation in Johnson’s youth.

The documentary comes into its own, though, when tackling the fallout from Johnson contracting HIV. The early Nineties was a time of rampant ignorance when it came to the virus — as it’s pointed out here, many believed at the time that this was a scourge limited to the gay community and intravenous drug users. Johnson himself thought, at first, that it was a death sentence, and is movingly candid about how dark his thoughts became in the wake of the diagnosis.

But, as recounted by former US president Bill Clinton (one of many hugely famous interviewees; Barack Obama, Samuel L Jackson and fellow basketball groundbreaker Michael Jordan among them), Johnson “did more than anybody else to finally break the stigma” with his bravery in going public.

He had to face plenty of fear and loathing in the aftermath — some basketball players refused to play against him, for fear of contracting the virus themselves — but Johnson persevered, winning both the NBA All-Star Game in 1992 with a famously magnificent performance, and an Olympic gold medal that same year.

And despite the early fears of Johnson, his family and his fans, modern advancements in drugs mean that the 62-year-old has gone on to live a healthy life — of which he has made a significant success, as explained the in the documentary’s final episode, which charts his empire-building business ventures, from partnering with Starbucks to buying stakes in other LA sports teams.

Tender moments, such as when Johnson and his son EJ discuss how the father took time to overcome his own prejudices when EJ came out as gay, but eventually embraced the fact, feel as if they could do with greater space; Johnson himself is way less articulate about the emotions swirling around the topic than his son is. And, perhaps understandably, the less glittering parts of Johnson’s career, like his lukewarm final attempt at a basketball comeback in 1995, or his car-crash foray into late night TV with his swiftly cancelled show, The Magic Hour, are more or less skimmed over.

For US audiences who have lived alongside the Magic Johnson story, there’s probably not a great deal that will feel revelatory. For others, in the UK and elsewhere, whose lives haven’t been quite so dominated by the cultural phenomenon of basketball, it provides a varied portrait of the man; magic, indeed.

Streaming on Apple TV+ now

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