When the comedy king spied new turf
Judd Apatow’s new sports documentary look at two baseball stars and the demons they have faced, writes
Judd Apatow was at a postscreening talk for Doc & Darryl, when asked what it was about the making of his documentary, about once-great New York Mets Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, that most surprised him.
‘‘I thought it was going to be a lot more uplifting,’’ the filmmaker said dryly. Viewers might be equally taken aback. The baseball tale, which Apatow codirected with veteran documentarian Michael
Bonfiglio, on its surface seems like one more celebration of those glorious 1980s Mets teams or at least a traditional comeback story of its two principals. But what they found was much darker and more complicated.
Rather than offer a familiar story of redeemed superstars, Doc & Darryl uncovers a pair of men who captivated a nation and then, almost simultaneously, began an epic battle with their demons.
When audiences tune in to watch the movie – which is screening on ESPN as part of its
30 for 30 series – they likely will come away not only appreciating the depth possessed by a pair of vintage athletes, but seeing all of their heroes in a more ambiguously human light.
‘‘It’s a movie about stars, but it’s really about people who had a lot more downs than they had ups,’’ Apatow says.
Viewers also will have their expectations confounded of a director who after more than a decade chronicling the raunchy and the lovelorn in feature films and television has, with his first documentary, located a new arena in which to focus his gaze.
The basics of the Dwight ‘‘Doc’’ Gooden and Darryl Strawberry stories are widely known. The duo formed the twin towers of baseball during the Reagan days, two poor kids who ascended, then descended, the sports-media mountain. They were Straw and the Doc, the lanky Angeleno with the sweet swing and the softspoken Floridian with the arm of gold. Following each other into the majors by one season in the early 1980s, they each would go on to win rookie of the year awards and lead the Mets to the 1986 World Series title.
The more salacious details of their lives, particularly Strawberry’s battle with drugs and alcohol, have been well documented in the tabloids. Their humanity has not.
Relying partly on a conceit of a reunion in a Queens, New York diner, Doc & Darryl examines a wealth of private thoughts and experiences. This is particularly true in the case of Gooden, who, the film tactfully suggests, continues to struggle with cocaine addiction.
It looks, for instance, at the hurler’s deep regret about missing the 1986 victory parade because of a post-World Series drug bender.
It examines Strawberry’s multiple battles with cancer and the complicated relationship between his illness and drug use. (The slugger also played for the Dodgers, including a successful 1991 season and two erratic years that followed.)
It covers the stars’ controversial relationships with women – including a domesticabuse arrest for Strawberry and a rape allegation against Gooden that did not lead to charges.
And the movie makes clear how, as much as the pressure – and party culture – of 1980s New York exacerbated tendencies in young men of whom too much was expected, the roots of their problems were laid much earlier.
Says Apatow of what he and his partner uncovered: ‘‘We thought this would really be a look how they climbed out of it. As it went on, we became more and more aware of how recent their troubles were.’’
After five features that culminated in 2015’s Trainwreck, Apatow is moving on to new directorial pastures. He is making at least two more documentaries: a piece on the Southern-fried hipster band the Avett Brothers and a movie about Garry Shandling, based in part on the late comedian’s diaries.
‘‘I only have so many stories from my own life. At some point, I have to tell other people’s stories,’’ Apatow says, half-joking, referring to the autobiographical beats in scripted films such as This Is 40 and Funny People.
But there may be a more specific reason for his decision to make a movie like Doc & Darryl. Much as with his recent narrative work, the film examines the lives of men who’ve reached a certain plateau of success and must contend with what to do next, with how to define themselves. Apatow also makes a similar suggestion in this film as he does in many of his narrative films: that the devil lies within.
‘‘I always tell people who say I don’t have enough villains in my movies is that it’s hard enough to get through the day without villains, and I think that’s shown clearly in a lot of documentaries.’’
Apatow was not intent on making a sports documentary. But an ESPN executive reached out to him on Twitter to gauge his interest in a 30 for 30 project.
Soon, he and Bonfiglio (the director of You Don’t Know Bo, about multi-sport athlete Bo Jackson) were talking about a Mets movie. Apatow, 49, had grown up on Long Island a fan of the team, and so the two set about courting the stars.
Though Apatow said Strawberry and Gooden have seen and liked the movie, neither attended its New York premiere.
‘‘It’s a story that goes to a lot of dark places and not one where you necessarily want to make yourself available for a whole bunch of interviews,’’ says Jonathan Dahl, the ESPN executive who oversees 30 for 30.
As many entries in the series have done, Doc & Darryl demonstrates that all good sports stories are human stories. Anchoring the film is the Amy- ish idea that, beyond simple schadenfreude, dismissals or even pity, celebrity addiction should stir more complex feelings about human fragility.
And hovering above Doc & Darryl is a melancholic air of what might have been – both for these men and their singlechampionship team – had they not been bedevilled by disease or had they, and others, better succeeded in defeating it.
‘‘We could have made a story about the crazy 1986 Mets and all the stuff that went on,’’ Dahl says. ‘‘But that was less interesting to us. Dwight and Darryl’s prodigious talent makes you want to explore what happened. These two saviours – why didn’t they save the Mets? Why didn’t they save themselves?’’ – Los Angeles Times
Doc & Daryl next screens on ESPN on July 19 at 11pm.
After years of making comedies, Judd Apatow has now tried his hand at making a sports documentary.
Dwight ‘‘Doc’’ Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were both stars for the New York Mets baseball team in the 1980s.