What inane and disordered expectations could any critic, parent, or child even muster for a Space Jam sequel? The original movie was a kiddie basketball romp starring Michael Jordan and his sporting roster of chaotic and obsolete cartoon characters from the 1930s. (That’s right, Bugs Bunny is older than Joe Biden.) The Looney Tunes—sorry, the Tune Squad—and Bill Murray lured Jordan out of his weird baseball phase and into a high-stakes, hard-contact showdown with an intergalactic menace known as the Monstars. Given the original movie’s genesis as a series of TV commercials and its foreshadowing of the “cinematic universe” model for popular entertainment, I now tend to regard Space Jam as a dismal prophecy about art and commerce in the 21st century. But it was also an exquisite blend of live action, cartoon animation, and CGI in a larger-than-life sports movie with a killer soundtrack.
A quarter-century later, I can at least stand by the original Space Jam soundtrack. It wasn’t just a good album that included some of the decade’s biggest hits (“I Believe I Can Fly,” “Fly Like an Eagle”), it was also a smart stylistic gambit. If you were a little too old and a little too cool to be rooting for the Tune Squad in all seriousness, you could at least pop in the cassette and listen to Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J impersonating the Monstars for a posse cut (“Hit Em High”), Monica playing the emotional stakes of a basketball Armageddon straight with a ballad (“For You I Will”), and Chris Rock and Barry White doing a long and sultry bit about hoop dreams. I’m not saying the original Space Jam soundtrack was fucking Innervisions, OK? But the soundtrack was shockingly essential and durable for what it was. With time, Space Jam: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture and even the old Space Jam website have outlasted the movie per se in preserving the commercial styles and sensibilities of the late 1990s.
What does this latest soundtrack do for the sequel and the 2020s? No favors. Space Jam: A New Legacy, starring LeBron James, is a corny and cluttered movie. It’s a long-hyped, star-studded “event” reduced to a blip in the proverbial Where’s Waldo? Illustration of popular culture, which is overcrowded with IP and crossovers. The Looney Tunes could barely carry a movie in 1996 and they damn sure can’t carry a movie in 2021, but now Warner Bros. recruits the wider corporate “family” into scenes no less harrowing for their blandness. They really got Agent Smith and the Mask out here standing courtside at humanity’s algorithmic demise. This is a music review, so I won’t get into the multiple entendres by which James could be said to be “playing himself” in Space Jam: A New Legacy; nor will I belabor Don Cheadle’s endearing and very nearly redeeming performance as the villain, Al-G Rhythm; nor will I beg the Wachowskis to do something, anything, to halt the perpetual misappropriation of The Matrix. I’ll just note the utter indignity in this sequel still being rather more enjoyable than its soundtrack. What is this soundtrack?! That’s the real algorithmic villain here, the uncredited and thus unaccountable playlist sentience that’s got me listening to Lil Uzi Vert rap over “Pump Up the Jam.”
Ideally, the soundtrack might have brought some verve to this self-satisfied metacommentary about the massive back catalog of a multimedia monopoly. The soundtrack was the chance to once again bypass the demographic limitations of the movie and chart some respectable jams. But here’s John Legend singing yet another Target commercial into existence through sheer force of his bankability (“Crowd Go Crazy”). Here’s Joyner Lucas moaning about self-esteem (“Shoot My Shot”). Chance the Rapper is Space Jam incarnate, a millennial rapper spawned from a McDonald’s ball pit, and even he can’t obscure the gimmickry and cringe in these songwriting prompts (“See Me Fly”). Lil Wayne survives a collaboration with 24kGoldn by virtue of Weezy’s signature detachment that always implicitly disavows his lamest collaborations (“Control the World”). There’s just one honorable performance on this soundtrack: Big Freedia impersonating the various Looney Tunes and just plain going for broke (“Goin’ Looney”). But even here I fear I’m giving Freedia, and thus the soundtrack, too much credit; one mustn’t risk encouraging such behavior from the executive producers on these things. They’ve done enough.
The thing is, I can imagine LeBron James listening to every one of these songs and giving each track one of those odd nods of approval he offers damn near anything on Instagram Live. I can see how this all happened and how bad taste won the day because that’s always the easiest outcome, and I can write the postmortem for the Space Jam sequel and its rent-a-star soundtrack with a heavy head but reasonable standards. But I regret the lost opportunity here. The sequel was always going to be craven and stupid. But the musicians might have once again seized the opportunity to help make this children’s movie feel bigger than it ought to be. Yet the movie and the soundtrack both feel small, and the latter almost sounds determined to be forgotten by all but the algorithm as soon as it’s possible. So let us cast these songs into the margins of each contributor’s discography, a tangent to an afterthought in the filmography of Don Cheadle.