Documentarians Benjamin and Gabe Turner get remarkable amounts of access to their superstar athlete subject in their film I Am Bolt, an inside look at Jamaican runner and international sensation Usain Bolt, told largely from his unique perspective. The wealth of detail on display in I am Bolt is commendable and meshes nicely with the athlete’s laid back attitude and largely sympathetic nature. He’s a fascinating figure to follow around and learn from, but also an everyman type of person who would just as much like to be going out and enjoying life as much as he strives to break every track and field record possible. I Am Bolt isn’t merely a peek behind the curtain and into Bolt’s training process, but also a refreshing reminder that larger than life sports figures are still everyday people deep down.
The Turners make sure that I Am Bolt starts in a captivating moment of logical importance. They begin following the most important and instantly recognizable runner in the world at the close of his 2015 season at the Beijing World Championships. The charming and gregarious Bolt is placed in opposition to brash, abrasive, and cocky American runner Justin Gatlin, who’s returning after a steroid violation. It immediately casts Bolt as an easygoing hero, almost Rocky-like in nature, but this would be the Rocky that took over around the third film in that franchise and not the story of a humble up and comer. It’s a great opening gambit, not just in a chronological sense with the rest of the film charting the ups and downs he faces en route to the 2016 Rio Olympics, but because the Turners frame it in such a way that the audience gets to know Bolt’s personality before they get to know the specifics of his greatness. Sure, in the film’s dullest moments the Turners feel the obligation to relive Bolt’s greatest victories and defeats, but the personal journey here always takes precedence over the professional details.
Bolt, by his own admission, is getting older, dealing with greater injuries than he ever has before, and he’s growing weary with the sport that gave him massive amounts of fame. He muses that the older he gets, the harder he has to work to stay on top and the more painful that work becomes. The injuries that have plagued him almost his entire career are catching up to him. Combine that with a level of fame that means he doesn’t get a chance to go out on his own, and you have a portrait of a man who likes to joke around and have fun off the track, but who feels like he’s not getting the most out of life that he can. He’s a man who’s seen as the apex of achievement in his sport, and all he wants is to take a lengthy vacation and eat a bunch of junk food.
There’s a refreshing frankness to Bolt that the Turners capture wonderfully. Bolt never says or does anything stupid or incendiary, but he also doesn’t have much of a filter, always coming off as being conversational and never rehearsed or practiced when telling an anecdote or expressing his true feelings. He seems constantly in awe and grateful for what he’s been able to achieve since he started racking up championships in his home country at the age of 14. He can admit when he’s being petty or lazy, but he also knows what he has to do to overcome those feelings. He even allows the cameras to capture how he sometimes gets stir crazy by virtue of not being able to leave his home or hotel rooms to have a quiet night out by himself, as exemplified by footage of a lonely Bolt singing along to “Bump N Grind” by himself while riding a hoverboard around his room. It’s as memorably amusing as it’s also quietly sad and almost brutally truthful to Bolt’s often solitary life.
There are interviews with his biggest supporters that are illuminating. His coach Glen Mills (who’s a lot bigger and older than one might think a modern track coach would be), his best friend and most constant road companion NJ, and Bolt’s equally charismatic and charming parents all pop up to talk about what makes Usain tick and the concerns they have for him. These personal recollections and talks about being in proximity to such talent and fame offer the Turners and the film much more to chew on than brief chats with celebrity admirers and fellow athletes like Serena Williams, Pele, and Donovan Bailey. They’re fine and offer some insight to the professional world Bolt runs in, but the personal stuff is the real meat of this and the main reason to seek this one out. It’s a flashy, crowd pleasing look at a flashy, crowd pleasing, and remarkably human sports icon.