On episode one of The Last Dance, a young Michael Jordan comes to the Chicago Bulls in 1984 determined to not just make a name for himself in the NBA, but to be the greatest player in basketball history. A montage of his early years with the Bulls commences with Jordan landing a spectacular dunk to Erik B. and Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke," the ball slamming into the hoop at the precise moment Rakim spits out the word "joke." It's electric, and it's the beginning of the story of Michael Jordan proving he's a force to be reckoned with.
While this very writer has argued that Jordan's huge, baggy suits are the real MVP of the ESPN documentary series, the exceptional soundtrack, which takes already astounding footage of these NBA greats to mind-blowing and extremely hype heights, is a close second.
"I knew a lot of these games almost by heart," music supervisor for the series Rudy Chung told VICE. "I had these tapes of the Pistons in especially their two championship years. I watched all those tapes until the tape wore down."
The 43-year-old Detroit native worked on The Last Dance for over two years, collaborating closely with director Jason Hehir to soundtrack one of the most remarkable sports stories ever told. As a longtime basketball fan, particularly of the Bulls' arch rivals the Detroit Pistons, the documentary was a dream project for Chung. When Hehir, with whom he had worked on the 2018 documentary André the Giant, mentioned the project years ago, Chung admits to a certain amount of begging to be brought on.
"I was like, dude, I have to work on this with you. There was no alternative. I would do anything. This is one of those things where, literally, I would have worked for free on it." Chung, now based in L.A., said over the phone. "This is one of those projects where you're just like, I just need to be a part of it somehow, and I'm very fortunate that he wanted to hire me."
There's also a hilarious scene following the team's win over the Bad Boys era Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. While celebrating on a private plane, general manager Jerry Krause makes an attempt at the running man to Kool Moe Dee's "How You Like Me Now." But I'd really be remiss if I didn't call attention to the montage of Jordan game highlights set to Prince's "Partyman" from the original soundtrack to the 1989 film Batman. It's impossible not to get goosebumps as the sheer brilliance and spectacle of Jordan's skill is supercut to Prince's indelible voice as it trills all hail the new king in town over the synth-funk beat.
These are just a few moments in The Last Dance where the soundtrack adds depth and movement to the action on screen. Chung explained that the vision for the soundtrack came directly from Hehir, with whom he'd share playlists of songs that could work for the series. While old school and 90s hip-hop was part of that vision considering its popularity during the era depicted in the series, Chung and Hehir didn't want to limit the soundtrack to just that genre or time. "Jason just knew what he wanted. Having grown up through this era just like I had, he's not only a music fan, I would say that Jason has an encyclopedic knowledge of music," Chung said.
There was also close collaboration with editors to test whether a song they liked paired well with the pictures on screen. Chung recalled in particular the moment he got an early cut of a Dennis Rodman sequence set to Beastie Boys' "The Maestro."
"Not only is it sort of emblematic of the era, but it just represented Rodman perfectly. It's not a hip-hop song; it's not a rock song. It's a little bit of everything, a little punk rock. It just works so well for Rodman…. To me, that was the perfect moment of pairing the right song to represent one of our characters on the screen," he said.
But Chung said they didn't get everything they wanted. There's still "a spreadsheet of dozens of songs that we were interested in," but were unable to use because of budget restrictions, licensing, and because they couldn't get permission from artists. While Chung couldn't specify the budget for the project, considering the magnitude of artists featured in the series and the number of songs used, even a sizable budget would be stretched thin.
Chung admits that he and his team used various tactics to clear songs they had their heart set on. "I think I wrote the phrase 'I'm on bended knee,'" Chung said with a laugh. "We really asked and begged in some cases to be able to use the music. We wrote letters. We had lots of phone calls pleading our case and trying to sell the merits of what we were trying to do, and a lot of it worked out."
Now, with a captive audience missing what would have been the NBA playoffs if the world weren't in the middle of a pandemic, we can collectively partake in the love of sports and see the fierce, strong-willed version of Jordan—Not Space Jam Jordan or "Be Like Mike" Jordan that appealed to the masses, but the indefatigable athlete who dominated his sport.
"Jordan at the time in the 90s wasn't necessarily associated with hip-hop," said Chung. "No one's really seen too many of these highlights of Jordan that everyone knows so well set to an old school hip-hop soundtrack. I think that's part of the reason people have been responding so well. It's a really gratifying thing to see."
The soundtrack to The Last Dance is available to stream on Spotify and Apple Music.