Though it focuses primarily on the Willams’ career and personal lives in 2011, the documentary “Venus and Serena” covers their entire lives, beginning even before the elder Venus was born. Their father Richard Williams wrote an extensive plan for his daughters’ success in tennis before Venus entered the world, not taking into account her abilities (or her sister Serena’s, for that matter). The film bounces between the near-present and the past, relating their training in the early ‘90s, growth and fame in the late ‘90s and maturity in the ‘00s and beyond. Footage from old interviews is interspersed with current-day interactions with the athletes to create a holistic picture of careers that are still going strong, despite opposition throughout their time as pros. Being raised in Compton doesn’t seem to fit with many people’s ideas about the normally aristocratic sport, and that resistance didn’t end once the Williams earned their fame and fortune.
“Venus and Serena” wins points for sharing an intimate, not-always-flattering view of the sisters that isn’t PR-friendly. This isn’t the manufactured intimacy of “Beyonce: Life Is But a Dream” but with rackets. Serena’s impressive temper makes an appearance or two, with some considerable time spent on her outburst at the 2011 US Open. Their health also figures prominently in the narrative of the film, as well as the havoc that the combo of tennis and age can wreak on a body (or bodies). It doesn’t dive too deeply into the women’s love lives, though it does reveal their philosophy about dating (and that Serena dated Brett Ratner, which we found far more troubling than cursing at a line judge).
Filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major get great access to the women, both on the court and off, catching them at times that certainly aren’t their best.The bulk of the doc’s drama falls heavily (and a bit lopsidedly) in its final third. Problems are raised with Richard Williams, in addition to family struggles beyond the domineering dad (you will write your father a thank you note for being normal after this) and a few other challenges that weren’t previously revealed in the film, some of which seem to come out of nowhere. With moments like these, Baird and Major’s film is entertaining and often compelling, but it doesn’t reach the artistry of the best sports docs released in theaters or even the excellent ones playing each Sunday on ESPN’s winning series “30 for 30.” Alex Gibney, most famous for his own offerings “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” serves as a producer, but the film doesn’t reach the heights of his own sports documentary “Catching Hell.”
Bill Clinton, Anna Wintour and Chris Rock wouldn’t be our first picks to appear in a sports documentary (not that we’re unhappy to see them here), but they provide interesting insight that broadens the film’s appeal beyond just tennis fans as it delves into their impact on culture and style. While it initially might seem odd to have people so far removed from the world of tennis commenting on the sisters’ success, it’s a testament to the far-reaching influence and inspiration of their story. Hearing from tennis greats Billie Jean King and John McEnroe is expected, but having McEnroe’s input (particularly since he served as a role model for the hot-tempered Serena) is essential. Given the sibling rivalry here, it’s also nice to see Patrick McEnroe, the legend’s younger, less famous brother, making a brief appearance.
The relationship between the two is fascinating, alternating between a remarkable interdependency and incredible competition. Initially, their father had only intended for Venus to become the star, but Serena’s drive to compete with (and best) her sister pushed her into the spotlight as well. There’s a bond here that has worked well for them professionally, but it’s also provided them with a deep connection that would leave some sisters scratching their heads in confusion or jealous over having that intimate of a relationship. The pair are virtually unbeatable on the doubles’ court, racking up Grand Slam and Olympic wins. Their first meeting in the US Open finals in 2001 was such a draw that the match was the first women’s final broadcast in primetime, resulting in a ratings payoff. They’ve made the sport more interesting, both as black athletes and as women. In their careers, separately and together, they’ve drawn unprecedented crowds and payouts and changed the sport for the better. Despite a ridiculous eye roller of a song from Wyclef Jean (who provided most of the film’s music) playing over the final credits, we left “Venus and Serena” inspired us to get out in the sun and get moving. And call our siblings. [B]