DIR: Gavin Fitzgerald • WRI: William Nicholson • PRO: Jamie D’Alton, Graeme McDonnell • DOP: Gavin Fitzgerald, Darragh Mccarthy • ED: Andrew Hearne • MUS: Hugh Drumm • CAST: Conor McGregor, Dee Devlin, Dana White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jose Aldo
Going into this documentary on Conor McGregor’s phenomenal UFC career, I was on its side. I find Conor McGregor a more interesting and complicated figure than some give him credit for. I have mixed feelings about him, reflecting society’s division between his adoring fans and those who find him insufferably obnoxious. Notorious, following McGregor’s meteoric rise will not change anyone’s opinion of him. If he grates with you, Notorious will rub your face in his success and seemingly abundant happiness. If on the other hand, you’re a fan of his… You might not get anything new from this.
Director Gavin Fitzgerald and producer Jamie D’Alton have footage going back years of Conor’s early fights, leading up to his first fights with the UFC. Much of this formed part of an RTÉ series and seemed to have intimate access to McGregor and his family. The arrangement of footage here is edited so frantically, few moments are given time to sink in. It also doesn’t explore Conor as a divisive pop culture figure, which is surely part of his “Notorious” public image.
Notorious opts instead to take an observational approach, following press junkets, physiotherapy sessions and training. There is lots of great footage of McGregor training. It reveals the determination with which he physically pushes himself, even to the point of taking repeated punches to the abdomen to toughen up. It also shows the infectious positivity with which he influences the entourage around him. These two attributes inform his charismatic personality alternating from playful excitement to driven focus. McGregor is engaging to watch, it just might be ‘engaging’ in the wrong way for some viewer’s sensibilities.
This feels like a missed opportunity to produce something of more depth. The same free-spiritedness behind McGregor’s playfulness makes him insensitive towards others. This leads to backlashes of controversy around him using a homophobic slur in trash-talk or calling a black man ‘boy’ or so on. There is a context to trash-talk in which the narrow objective is the opponent’s emasculation. There is the broader context of the way words bring harm to people. Plenty to explore there in terms of this neurosis that makes Conor a divisive figure. It’s not the only thing a documentary should focus on but it’s notable by its absence here.
The thing is, I’m not sure if this was ever intended to be some deeper look at what it means to be a sports role model or whatever. It doesn’t even get that much into what it means to be a celebrity. McGregor’s journey here is depicted as rags-to-riches with few complications or setbacks. Don’t get me wrong. Notorious shows the sacrifice, ambition and focus McGregor needed to overcome challenges. But it runs through the highlights of a career you already know the progression of if you’re even a little interested in seeing this.
Notorious doesn’t really show much change to Conor’s personality from the impact of becoming a celebrity either. From living with his parents on dole money to being a global star, he acquires more garish tattoos but his gleeful anticipation for great feats yet to come remains about the same. He talks about how he feels so in his element while training, he needs it in his life, exercise being the healthiest addiction of all. There is a psychology to athletes pushing themselves to their limit and in Notorious we don’t get much more than surface-level examination. Likewise for any interrogation of McGregor’s values beyond his defence of materialism. Likewise for any impact his early life would have had on his values. The cursory glance here on his life before MMA doesn’t even get into the living conditions in his neighbourhood nor the fact he went to an Irish-language school.
Again, is that what Notorious was ever meant for? A lofty examination of cultures of masculinity, challenging the media image of a restless psyche with an uninhibited mouth? No. This is more like one of those WWF VHS tapes I got when I was little, where it told The Rock’s story or something. It is UFC material, executive produced by Conor McGregor. It is a celebration of his career and it’s not without its moments. It’s not just the bemusing cameos. The cage-fights themselves are imbued with cinematic life through good sound mixing and use of slow-motion. They somehow got clean audio of coach John Kavanagh’s ringside talks to McGregor. These moments are revealing about their bond. The pause Kavanagh gives before offering reassurance. The admirable dedication McGregor puts towards his goals.
Unfortunately, Notorious comes together flat. It rushes over the cultural moments around trash-talk and it skims over the Alvarez and Mayweather fights. The story of the Mayweather fight alone would have provided ample material for a feature documentary. Notorious begins with McGregor training with champions of sports where there’s no money to be made and no funding from the Sports Council. His fights attract enough buzz for the UFC to identify their eccentric superstar to bring more focus to MMA. The arc followed focuses more closely on the Jose Aldo fight and the two Nate Diaz fights. It’s possible you’ll find more insightful footage typing ‘Conor McGregor’ into YouTube. Though Notorious is fine to watch, it’s just not the fascinating documentary we could get some day.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Conor McGregor: Notorious is released 27th October 2017