Jason Hehir's "The Last Dance" is easily the most talked about ESPN documentary since the Oscar-winning "O.J.: Made in America." It's a 10-hour examination of arguably the greatest athlete of the 20th century and his hypercompetitive drive to win as many NBA championships as possible before his physical brilliance decayed. But it is not just Michael Jordan's story. There wouldn't be a tale worth telling without Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson or Dennis Rodman. And it didn't happen in a cultural vacuum. The Bulls were as much a product of their time as the "We Are Family" Pirates or the Showtime Lakers. This is driven home every episode by Hehir's carefully selected music cues. Though the songs are rarely obscure, they're not the same tired era signifiers you get in a lazily slapped-together period film. Just take a look (and listen) to the below tracks, and appreciate the thought that's gone into each needle drop.
You knew “The Last Dance” meant business when it kicked off the Chicago Bulls preseason 1997 international tour with Puff Daddy’s “Been Around the World," one of the hottest singles off the multi-platinum LP. Not only is the track perfectly distinctive of its era, but it’s also built around an extended sample of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance." Director Jason Hehir could’ve easily gone with Puffy’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” or “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down," but he scored a two-for-one with the right song and the right sample.
This funky track from French rapper Soon E Mc dropped in 1992, but most of the documentary’s viewers were probably hearing it for the first time in the series’ opening episode. Whereas a stock Serge Gainsbourg cue would’ve put you in the mind of a ‘60s French New Wave opus, Soon E’s song, propelled by a catchy sample from Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s “65 Bars and a Taste of Soul," gives the Bulls’ overseas sojourn a contemporary Gallic flavor. It’s a deep pull that’ll hopefully have folks raiding the emcee’s archive.
It’s only heard briefly as he makes his entrance on the popular French variety show “Nulle part ailleurs," but take it as further confirmation that you couldn’t go anywhere in the world in 1997 without hearing Biggie Smalls’ chart-topping, Herb Alpert-infused single. Given the series’ primary 1997-98 setting, Jason Hehir could’ve gone nuts with the Puffy/Bad Boy samples; fortunately, six episodes in, he has abstained.
“How’s the transition been from college to the NBA.” “Well, I think it’s been pretty easy.” The rookie Michael Jordan in all his guns-blazing glory gets accompanied by one of the mid-1980s greatest brag tracks in Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke." Vibing off two classic samples — “Pass the Peas” by The J.B.’s and “Theme from the Planets” by Dexter Wansel — the era’s baddest emcee asserts his dominance over his rhyme-spitting competition as Jordan goes on a one-man scoring rampage. (He averaged 28.2 points per game that season). The message from Jordan and Rakim is clear: Get in their way, and you will get a smack for this.
If you were a 1980s pro wrestling aficionado, you know damn well that “Sirius," the oddly dramatic instrumental lead-in to The Alan Parsons Project’s soft-rock hit, “Eye in the Sky," was first used as entrance music by the WWF’s Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat — because nothing conjures the warrior spirit more acutely than British progressive music. But it worked. And when Steamboat’s employers could no longer afford to license the track, the Bulls organization ponied up and turned it into the team’s introductory anthem throughout their championship runs in the 1990s. If you’re looking for peak “Sirius” usage, you’ll find it in the bar mitzvah scene from John Hamburg’s cult classic, “Safe Men."
Uncle L’s most ferocious dis track, backed up by a searing sample of the theme from “S.W.A.T.," might feel a little on the nose compared to these other cues, but Michael Jordan’s first-round scoring explosion against the 1986 Boston Celtics, who would go on to beat the Showtime Lakers in the NBA Finals, was far from a subtle feat. When the rarely complimentary Larry Bird compares Jordan’s 63-point Game 2 performance to an act of God, your music choices are basically “I’m Bad” or Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. With apologies to the German composer’s bounce-worthy compositions, Hehir wisely went with the more hip-hop of the two.
If I may inject a personal note here, my quality of life heading into the summer of 1989 hinged on two potential outcomes: Tim Burton’s “Batman” had to be a life-altering piece of cinema, and the Cleveland Cavaliers needed to make a deep run in the NBA Playoffs. For the latter, I would’ve settled for a competitive Eastern Conference Finals loss to the reigning champs, the Detroit Pistons. How’d that work out for me? I dug “Batman," got a slammin’ soundtrack from my favorite musician on the planet (Prince) and, well, the Cavs didn’t even make it out of the first round thanks to Michael Jordan’s iron will. So watching a montage of His Airness’ high-flying majesty scored to the best song on Prince’s multi-platinum LP basically ranks as a strangely exhilarating kick to the cojones.
Wondering where the hell Anita Baker’s 1988 soul ballad played in “The Last Dance”? Welcome to the club! If you’re any kind of Bulls (or Cavs) fan, you know that Jordan, right after he knocked down “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo in 1989, boasted to CBS’ James Brown that he used Baker’s song to psych him up before the game. So if you’re curious to hear what kind of music gets the GOAT’s blood rushing, it’s only a click away.
For a Hall-of-Fame baller who played the game with a screw-you edge that drew no shortage of suspensions and ejections, you can’t do much better than the Beastie Boys’ punk-rap classic, “The Maestro." The genre fusion was a game changer coming off “Check Your Head" and is thus perfectly suited to Rodman’s unique mélange of defense, rebounding and almost zero scoring. Musically and athletically, it’s an ecstatic marriage of mavericks.
What better way to score Dennis Rodman’s midseason Las Vegas rehab (in the not-unwelcome company of Carmen Electra) than with Big Pun’s 1998 party anthem “Still Not a Player”? We see The Worm and his motley crew of fellow bacchanalians hoisting shots and enjoying the Sin City nightlife for what’s supposed to be a 48 hour, head-clearing reprieve. When that time frame gets violated, Jordan comes a-knocking at his penthouse, and yoinks Rodman – who is at one captured knocking back a Miller Lite and revving off on a motorcycle — back to reality. Boricua, morena…
If Robert Zemeckis directed this documentary, Phil Jackson’s hippie-esque origin segment would’ve been scored to either “Fortunate Son” or “Going Up the Country." Hehir once again pulls deeper than most filmmakers would with a terrific track off Cream’s debut LP. Though “I Feel Free” is hardly obscure, it doesn’t immediately call to mind another film, which allows the viewer to stay invested in the story of this long-haired freak’s unlikely journey from the Great Plains to the Big Apple (where he won two titles as a player with the New York Knicks).
Hip-hop was in the midst of a stylistic evolution when the Bulls won their first title in 1991, and it’s hard to think of a contemporary artist — Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, Digital Underground/2-Pac or what was left of NWA — that captured their coolly proficient approach to the game. Given that LL Cool J was in the midst of a “comeback," why not kick it back to his East Coast rival’s trash-talk classic about dismissing his doubters, which the Bulls had just done by sweeping the Pistons and making quick work of the once mighty Lakers. Nas was three years away from delivering the definitive anthem: “The World Is Yours."
No “if” about it: Though Tiger Woods had recorded his first Masters victory the year prior, when Michael Jordan hit Madison Square Garden for the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, he was the alpha and the omega of the sports world. This Nas-Lauryn Hill collaboration dropped in 1996 (it’s the final track on Nas’s ho-hum “It Was Written”), the same summer The Fugees’ “The Score” became a crossover sensation, but it was still getting loads of airplay when Jordan made what was believed to be his final All-Star performance (his unfortunate Wizards encore brought him back in 2002 and 2003), and it nicely underscores the deference on display when Jordan poses for a team photograph with teammates either on the rise or on their way out. The only people Jordan seems to respect in this sequence are his coach, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (who’s just hanging around because that’s what Magic does).
This is a cute needle drop from A Tribe Called Quest to commemorate MJ’s dicey decision to don the original Air Jordan’s for his 1998 farewell game at Madison Square Garden. Though Jordan was the kind of cheesy cat to blast Anita Baker in the locker room, hip-hop nevertheless adopted him as a style and attitude icon from his rookie season onward, and this iconic track — nudged along by that laid-back “Walk on the Wild Side” sample — clicks and creaks like an old-timer’s knees. But when we learn that Jordan’s feet were bleeding inside these suboptimal throwback kicks, you wonder if some Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” might’ve been a better choice.
You only see a glimpse of it in “The Last Dance," and if you’ve never seen it, maybe that’s enough. But we must never forget: In 1986, Converse sold its Weapon line of high-tops with a track that made "Rappin' Rodney" sound like “Juicy”. Then the go-to footwear for the NBA, Converse brought together the best of the best — Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Mark Aguirre and Bernard King — for a rhythmically challenged rap battle. Kudos to Aguirre, King and, shockingly, McHale for being able to stay on-beat. Magic’s mic skills, on the other hand, rival his acumen as a talk show host.
Once Jordan makes his deal with Nike, Hehir drops one of the documentary’s best music cues. Whereas MJ needed three years of seasoning at North Carolina to find his greatness, Edward K. Archer aka Special Ed rocked the mic at the age of 16 like he was born to the craft. If you’re making a list of Most Underrated Rap LPs, you can’t be taken seriously if you omit Ed’s “Youngest in Charge," a 1989 masterpiece that made some Billboard noise when “Yo! MTV Raps” put “I Got It Made” in heavy rotation. Ed was ascendant at the same time as Jordan; it’s a shame he didn’t attain even a fraction of his contemporary’s glory.
A weird playoff run that found teams getting pushed to six- and seven-game series, and yet the individual contests tended to be blowouts. The Bulls were chasing their second title and often appeared to be “making it interesting,” like a prize fighter in a fixed bout. But there was nothing fixed about this: The Bulls were simply that much better than everyone else. So whereas the Black Sheep offered a choice (“You can get with this, or you can get with that”), the Bulls were making all the decisions. We’ll give you a game or two. Maybe we’ll give you three. But when we feel like it, we’ll take it all.
The most obnoxious and subtly pernicious ad campaign of the 1990s posited that you could be “Like Mike” if you guzzled Gatorade. On its face, this was harmless hero worship. But then you got into the lyrics: “Sometimes I dream/That he is me. You’ve got to see/That’s how I dream to be.” This was way more than buying a pair of Ben Hogan clubs and thinking you can become a scratch golfer over night. Gatorade was selling a cult of personality. And yet people were savvy enough in the 1990s to understand that this was marketing nonsense. Perhaps if Jordan had put more effort into his public persona outside of making a terrible movie that did to Looney Tunes what Jim Jones did to Kool-Aid, he could’ve inflicted his moral indifference on a generation of impressionable young children. Then again, a legion of cigar-smoking degenerate gamblers who think they’re good at golf sounds like a better deal than what we’ve got now.
Michael Jordan’s 1998 farewell game in Atlanta cries out for an OutKast cue, and Hehir brings it with the era-appropriate “Rosa Parks” off “Aquemini." The track’s celebration of civil rights protest and social justice can’t help but feel like a rebuke of Jordan’s apolitical profile, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first instance of thematic smuggling layered within this 10-part saga. It’s up to you how to take it. Hehir could’ve dropped in some So So Def piffle and been done with it, but he went here instead.
This is the least inspired music cue in the documentary. Or maybe it’s perfect. Hip-hop didn’t get more mainstream than Naughty by Nature in 1993. They had an East Coast edge and a roughneck emcee in Treach, but they crossed over with catchphrase-driven singles like “OPP” and “Hip Hop Hooray." They sounded dangerous, but it was all posturing. They’d be the perfect soundtrack for the Vince Carter documentary. Jordan deserves the Geto Boys. Actually, forget that. Anita Baker makes sense. There’s nothing more psychotic than psyching up for a close-out playoff game than listening to Anita Baker.
When the Bulls dropped the first two games to the New York Knicks in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, it looked like a changing of the NBA guard was imminent. This would’ve meshed with the cultural upheaval created by grunge rock and gangsta rap. Had the Knicks pulled off the upset, Nirvana or Wu-Tang would’ve been the call here. But the Bulls held serve, which is well represented by the smoothly disruptive sound of the Stereo MCs. They were gifted and forward thinking but mindful of the marketplace — more reflective of the Bulls as a whole than Jordan as an individual.
“Fantastic” might be overstating it a tad, but Michael Jordan’s minor league baseball adventure was one of the most entertaining sports sideshows of the mid-‘90s, primarily because it started to look like MJ could legitimately make the majors. Though he hadn’t played the sport since high school, Jordan hit a solid .202 for the Birmingham Barons and seemed to have a blast doing it. And if you were having a good time in the summer of 1994, be it at the pool or a cookout, Coolio’s smash hit “Fantastic Voyage” was probably booming from a stereo.
It took a few games for Michael Jordan to find the old brilliance upon his return to the NBA in 1995, but when the switch flipped on, he shined brighter than ever. The Pete Rock-produced “Down with the King” brought Run DMC back to hip-hop prominence in 1993, and it’s a perfect fit for Jordan’s 1995 Madison Square Garden “Return Game," in which he threw down 55 points with old-school ease.
1995 was the opening act for the total domination of the Chicago Bulls’ 1996 season, which found the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman triumvirate mowing down the competition on the way to a then NBA all-time best 72-10. (The Warriors topped this with a 73-9 record in 2016 before blowing a 3-1 NBA Finals lead to the Cavs." How best to express long-term greatness than a track from the indefatigable, KRS-One? With its raucous “The Champ” sample backing up Blondie’s “Rapture," “Step into a World” is a fusion of hip-hop greatness past and present. Doesn’t get more fitting than that.
All those who expected to hear Soul Coughing’s grunge-rap banger “Super Bon Bon” during the course of “The Last Dance," spill your bongs on the living room carpet. A favorite of college kids with a blunted outlook on life, Soul Coughing was funkier and more musically accomplished than bands like Sublime or the abominable G. Love & Special Sauce. And for some reason they were the perfect choice to score Michael Jordan’s extermination of the Charlotte Hornets in the 1998 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Another inspired cut from director Jason Hehir.
This moody cut from Massive Attack imbues Michael Jordan’s famous 1996 Father’s Day victory over the Seattle SuperSonics an appropriately somber feel. This was the first title Jordan won after his father’s death, and it may be the only time we’ve seen an all-time great player react with grief to winning a championship. Though the song was two years away from being released, you forgive the anachronism when you’ve got a cue this perfect.
Jason Hehir’s documentary was turning into an extended "SportsCenter" feature during the ninth episode when the narrative focus shifted to Steve Kerr, whose life mirrors Jordan’s in one distinct way: Their fathers were both murdered. Kerr, who's added three championship rings to his collection as the coach of the Golden State Warriors, is movingly candid about his memories of his father and how he coped with his assassination in Beirut by hurling himself into basketball. The emotional climax arrives in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals when Kerr hits the series-winning shot. All through this sequence, Hehir uses a crucial cue from John Murphy/Underworld’s score to Danny Boyle’s sci-fi epic, “Sunshine." Sometimes, using indelible cues from great movies can backfire, but the music beautifully mirrors Kerr’s feelings about the moment that, until recently, defined his career.
Perhaps Hehir left out Jordan’s use of Anita Baker as psych-up music in 1989 so he could blow our minds with the GOAT jamming out to the ultra-mild R&B stylings of Kenny Lattimore. Jordan flexes on his teammates – who, if they listen to Lattimore, probably use him to set the mood when they’re looking to throw down in the bedroom – by stating that he’s listening to the new Lattimore, which he only has because the two are tight. No one seems terribly impressed, but goofing on Jordan for his taste in music would probably be a death wish.
The biggest musical misstep of the documentary. Hehir has gone with a couple of obvious tracks, but nothing this depressingly basic. This probably isn’t the first highlight reel of Game 6 against the Jazz in ’98 to use Fatboy Slim’s blandly propulsive dance track (which lost whatever power it once had via overuse in commercials over the last two decades), and it saps the life out of what should be a rousing conclusion to Jordan’s final title run. What a bummer.
This is a surprising choice for the final song of the movie, but it gives voice to a level of reflection that Jordan has struggled to convey throughout the doc. Jordan probably isn’t a big Pearl Jam fan, but perhaps he’d appreciate that the legendary Seattle band started its career as Mookie Blaylock. In any event, it’s a hopeful, almost serene sendoff to a man who, by his own admission, would give away every single one of his retirement years to once again go through the grind of a championship season. But that’s what makes it perfect: whereas we feel unsettled by this notion (just enjoy the amazing life you’ve made for yourself, man), the memory of battle is what keeps Jordan sane.
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