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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 9/10/98

The Basketball Diaries
1995 (1998) - Palm Pictures

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Film Rating: B+
The Basketball Diaries is an important contemporary film that deserves the DVD treatment. Lots to be said, and the talent behind the picture makes what has to be said, worth hearing.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/B+/C-
The transfer is dark, the sound is terrific, but these are the most lazy extras I've ever seen.

Overall Rating: C+
This film deserved a better treatment on DVD, it's not a bad version -- much better than video, but still -- the documenting of this film has got to be one of the better Hollywood stories.

Specs and Features

102 minutes, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-layered, single-sided, Amaray keep case packaging, anti-drug trailer featuring Everclear, TV spots, cast and crew interviews, film-themed menu screens, scene access (21 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) subtitles: SDH (English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing)


Before Leonardo became a screen icon in the vein of James Dean -- he was a respected artist and actor of high regard. Don't get me wrong, I still think the little brat can act -- I just think that before he was Jack in Titanic, he was one of Hollywood's real honest to goodness acting talents. Johnny Depp, to me, is still a major talented actor -- maybe because he still hasn't taken that one role that would make his face the subject of its very own magazine or a 4th grade reading level biography.

Before the selling out of Leo (oh, and the definition of a sell-out is someone who is more successful than myself -- so you're all sell-outs) there was What's Eating Gilbert Grape (also starring Depp, just caught that) and The Basketball Diaries. Diaries, as I'll call it from now on, is a remarkable film. What makes it so remarkable is that it captures the essence of an unfilmable source. The source was the diary of Jim Carroll, a very successful New York personality (artist, poet, songwriter) who went through hell when he was a young man. He was a Catholic school kid with hopes and dreams of becoming the next basketball legend -- but he ended up addicted to smack. Which is to say more simply -- he was a Catholic school kid. All that aside, for years the book remained one of those unfilmable books like Naked Lunch and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (both filmed, both financially tanked -- but both are actually good representations of their sources and one starred Johnny Depp. Hmmmmm.) Recently, a rash of filmmakers rose out of independent film depths and decided that they could successfully make the unfilmables. Diaries emerges as a teeny bopper tour-de-force for it's blonde haired star -- despite the fact he looks very heroin addicted throughout most of the film.

Leo plays Jim Carroll with a certain charm that isn't really part of the true Jim Carroll. If you ever listened to Carroll talk, or read his poetry, you'd get the idea that the guy might have spent one too many weeks burdened by the needle. Leo decided to get to the roots of the character and play him like he might have been before he became a hipster junky ala William Burroughs (the subject of Naked Lunch -- the circular references are getting weird, people). As the film starts, we see Carroll as a documentarian, always scribbling in his notebook -- his thoughts, his feelings and the events of his day are all there on sheets of white lined paper. As the film progresses we are privy to one of Jim's days -- he books out of school with his buddies, wreaks havoc and does experiments with drugs. Huffing and drinking are all part of his day, and as we know -- they lead to the hard stuff. Eventually Jim is on heroin, and the picture that the filmmakers paint ain't pretty. Leo is hardly the teen heartthrob in this one, and he throws himself all into it. Covered in body fluids, grime coated on his skin -- Jim is willing to do anything to get his next fix, which of course leads to a overt sexual encounter with his basketball coach played with a bucket of slime by Bruno Kirby. The film doesn't flinch in it's portrayal of abuse and addiction -- and neither should the audience. It's a good thing to see someone as attractive as Leo knee-deep in filth to showcase the dark black underbelly of life on the streets. Through his eyes we see the truth and hopefully this film will turn a few kids off of the romantic view of drugs.

The Basketball Diaries on DVD is as stiff as a mainline needle. The images seem a bit too dark and cold in this transfer. The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1 and with it's high octane soundtrack and use of effects, you'll notice the electricity flowing through the speakers on this one. The extras feature interviews with the cast, but not too much care was put into it. Each member of the cast is featured in short staccato bits that shoot out between cut to blacks, it's pretty painful to watch and with 9 of them to get through, it's not really worth it. It's all the typical PR stuff anyway, Leo saying how he approached the character, everyone else saying how brilliant the young actor is. There, now you know. There's also an anti-drug commercial featuring Everclear and a gaggle of previews of upcoming Manga/Palm Picture titles coming to DVD.

Bottom line

The Basketball Diaries is an important film for many reasons. It features a pre-heartthrob Leo, it makes a statement about something really important and it proves that unfilmable books can actually get made, and made right. The disc itself is nothing to write home about, but it's not too bad -- great sound, but worthless extras. Fans of Leo should check it out, simply to see the range of their crush subject and to also see the truth about drugs.

Todd Doogan
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