I’m a sucker for movies “based on a true story.” Usually these capture super-human achievements (like First Man or Midway) or unlikely events (like Ford v. Ferrari or The Social Network) or give us a glimpse into events we only knew a little about and want to learn more (like Richard Jewell or Just Mercy).
Of course, the downside of these kinds of films is that Hollywood likes to tell a good story above all else, and these movies often become the definitive truth for the public, even when that truth has been manipulated, compressed, or let’s say “enhanced” for the sake of the story. For example, as I dug into the real stories behind movies like Bohemian Rhapsody or
American Sniper, I learned that—as attorney Lionel Hutz famously said on The Simpson’s—“There’s the truth and ‘the truth’,” and just because it happens up on screen doesn’t mean it necessarily happened that way.
All of which is to say, I’m not sure exactly how accurate Warner Bros. new film King Richard is when it comes to telling the “true” story about the origins of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams growing up, or the antics of their father Richard, but I will say it was an entertaining feel-good film with great performances all around that really gives you a sense of the obstacles these girls/women overcame and just how much raw talent they had. I also walked away thinking that if their father was even half the character as portrayed by Will Smith, then these girls’ talent was truly off-the-charts for any of the people to actually take a chance on them and be forced to put up with him.
The film focuses on a fairly narrow slice of the girls’ lives, covering just a few years from when they start their serious training up until Venus (Saniyya Sidney) turns pro and
KING RICHARD AT A GLANCE
Will Smith’s performance and actors who actually seem to know how to play tennis keep things interesting & believable in this story of the early years Venus and Serena Williams.
The Dolby Vision grade is fairly restrained but is used to create natural-looking images with lots of depth and shadow detail throughout.
Since the movie relies on dialogue to move the story forward, there’s not a lot going on in the Dolby Atmos mix, but it definitely keeps the voices in the center channel, where they are always clear and intelligible.
competes in her first tournament in 1994 at age 14. Similar to Rocky, for a movie based on two of the greatest female tennis players of all time, there actually isn’t a lot of tennis. We get some scenes with them practicing, trying out for coaches, training, and some moments from Venus’s junior tournaments, but it’s really not until the big final matches when Venus turns pro that we see a lot of court action. The movie concentrates more on Richard’s all-focused drive on getting them to the top and making them the best, and showing us the hardships they had to overcome–Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus shared a room and even a bed with three other half-sisters in a small house in Compton, California.
I also don’t know if Sidney or Singleton have any actual tennis talent, but both sure look convincing on screen, which is what matters here. I was a golf professional in my previous career, and it is always a huge distraction in most golf films when it’s clear the actor couldn’t break 100 to save his life. Here, the girls’ mechanics are definitely believable, with strong, aggressive ground strokes and serves that look like the real deal. Even more impressive, Sidney is left-handed, but actually learned to play right for the film—though I do think they are physically smaller than the actual Williams sisters, who were imposing even at a young age.
Having read the Tiger Woods biography by Jeff Benedict, I saw quite a few parallels between the two stories. In both cases, you had less-privileged kids pushed to greatness by the drive and willpower of fathers who recognized their potential and wouldn’t take no for an answer. In this case, Richard had come up with his “plan” even before the girls were born, and he was laser-focused on sticking to it, and making them the best, regardless of obstacles or setbacks.
We get a sense that young Venus and Serena enjoyed playing and practicing, but was that because it was just living up to the plan constantly being drilled into them, they were trying to please overbearing Richard, they recognized tennis as their way to a better life, or they actually loved playing? Another common thread between King Richard and Tiger’s story was that of dropping supporters/coaches once they had reached the end of their usefulness, with people used just as stepping-stones to get to the next level.
While the film is struggling at the box office, having brought in a worldwide gross of just $8.4 million to date against its $50 million budget, it’s available day & date on HBO Max in 4K HDR with Dolby Vision from a 4K digital intermediate and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.
The opening images are a bit soft and have a desaturated color palette that feels like we are stepping back in time, but with the clarity and cleanness that is the signature of digital over film. Closeups certainly deliver loads of detail, and when we come in tight on Smith’s face you can see all the fine lines, pores, and individual hairs in his beard, or see the texture in fabrics like tennis shirts and sweaters. You also get nice sharp, tight lines, such as when shooting through chain-link fences surrounding tennis courts or the brick-and-mortar at country club buildings. Some longer shots, such as the pans of crowds at the Bank of the West tournament, also deliver sharp focus and detail.
The Dolby Vision grade is fairly restrained but is used to create natural-looking images with lots of depth and shadow detail throughout, with some added highlights when called for. Some of the best-looking images are the outdoor, sunlit scenes on the courts, where the lens just soaks up all the natural light, and where we get some gleaming white tennis shirts and shorts. We also get some night scenes with neon lights, sirens, tennis court lights, and headlights that pop against the black.
With the vast majority of the movie being dialogue that moves the story forward, don’t expect too much from this Dolby Atmos mix, but it definitely keeps the voices in the center channel, where they are always clear and intelligible. The surrounds and height speakers are used to expand the music and score—this might be the first and only time you can hear Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” in Atmos—and we also get some nice atmospheric audio when appropriate, like the sounds of street traffic or the sounds of birds, bugs, and insects. Occasionally, we get some overhead channel activity from rain storms or the echo of PA announcements. We also get a nice, authoritative pop! when Venus is whacking the ball.
King Richard is an entertaining, well-made, and well-acted film, and with Rotten Tomatoes critics’ and audience scores of 91 and 98% respectively, it would not be a surprise to see Will Smith up for his third Best Actor nomination. Other than a few uses of the n-word, it is definitely family friendly, and kept my 15-year-old—who has no interest in tennis—engaged. Streaming now on HBO Max, it is certainly worth giving a watch.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.