Some athletes in the history of sport are able to reach fame, but only very few inspire young people both in their home countries and the world. Their names echo in eternity, just like mythological characters or the Roman Age gladiators. Thirty-year-old Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is beyond doubt one of these people, alongside Michael Jordan and the late Muhammad Ali (he died last June at the age of 74).
The documentary I am Bolt, directed by the British brothers Benjamin and Gabe Turner (they made the football doc The Class of ’92 three years ago) is an intimate portrait of the fastest man alive, with plenty of videos in reality show confessional style (shot by Bolt himself) blended with unconventional film devices. We see Bolt, joking with his fellow Jamaican athletes in hotel rooms, having fun at parties with his friends back in Jamaica. We see beyond the athlete; but we see the young man behind him, his relationship with his friends, family and team. At times, there is an element of informal, gonzo reporting.
The filmmakers follow Bolt’s extraordinary efforts and challenges over the past few years, from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the 2012 London Olympics, the Germany World Championship all the way down to the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics. It reveals his efforts to reconcile his strict physical regime with a somehow normal life. The journeys back home are essential. A World famous sportsman needs to mingle with his people, listen to dancehall, reggae music and shake his booty. Bolt excels on that front as well, surrounded by a lot of twerking dancers.
The reggae artists Ziggy Marley and Chronixx, both interviewed in the movie, reveal Bolt has inspired the whole of Jamaica. Other interviewees include the legendary footballer Pelé, Neymar and the American tennis player Serena Williams. They talk about the ‘power’ of the lightning Bolt and his impact on the world of sport.
The political element does not prevail in I Am Bolt, unlike in other sports docs such as Maradona by Kusturica (Emir Kusturica, 2008). This movie is instead about an individual achiever: a man from humble beginnings and a small country, without access to sport facilities and networks structures, who managed to become “the greatest of all” in his craft.
The movie follows a natural flow, with no structural devices (such as chapters and titles); the narrative is straightforward and fluid, perhaps akin to the stream of consciousness. I am Bolt is more than entertaining; it is inspiring, sweaty, groovy and intense. It beggars the questions: Where is he going to run now? What’s his next challenge? Just how high can he go?
I Am Bolt showed in selected festivals when this piece was originally published (in 2016). Out on Netflix on Thursday, February 16th (2023).