LT: The Life & Times

In theory, the life of NFL legend Lawrence Taylor appears perfectly suited to a neat, linear narrative. His story is that of a meteoric, unprecedented rise, followed by a protracted, devastating fall, in turn followed by a hard-won redemption. But the paradoxical challenge that this Showtime Sports documentary faces and never quite overcomes is that the first half of Taylor’s life fits too perfectly into that narrative, while the second half pointedly refuses to cohere into a neat story of downfall and comeback. The second of those isn’t necessarily an issue, actually; people’s lives often are messy, and it most definitely isn’t the purpose of a documentary to force someone’s life into a reductive narrative—quite the opposite, if anything. But Taylor’s knack for self-destruction means LT: The Life & Times has to make some unenviable choices about whether to judge, to excuse, or to dispassionately present Taylor. The result is a documentary that struggles to find a coherent thesis, but Taylor proves a candid enough interview subject that the film mostly succeeds as a portrait of its larger-than-life, controversial central figure.

At times, the film miscalculates how best to approach Taylor’s travails, pushing its interview subjects hard on relatively minor issues while taking a more uncertain approach with the more troublesome aspects of Taylor’s story. An unseen questioner—presumably director Peter Radovich, Jr.—is heard asking Taylor’s legendary head coach Bill Parcells tough questions about what he might have done to curb the drug use of his star linebacker. It’s a question worth asking, but Parcells’ culpability in his player’s extracurricular activities is debatable, and it seems rather academic when compared to other parts of Taylor’s story. For instance, the film declines to challenge Taylor or his representatives on the circumstances of recent charges for sexual misconduct with an underage prostitute; the case ended in a plea bargain in which Taylor was sentenced to six years’ probation and has to register as a low-risk level one sex offender for the next two decades. It’s a complicated subject, but when one perspective is primarily represented by archive footage of Nancy Grace, it’s difficult to credit the film with a comprehensive, evenhanded exploration of the matter. Still, Taylor’s brutal honesty about his faults and his misdeeds does go some ways toward mitigating the film’s occasional missteps, and one definite conclusion to be drawn from LT: The Life & Times is that there’s simply no way to capture all aspects of a life as complicated and contradictory as Taylor’s.

But first, there’s the opening hour of the documentary to consider. Lawrence Taylor is probably the most famous, most successful drug addict in the history of the National Football League. While his drug use only truly spiraled out of control after his retirement in 1993, he used cocaine throughout much of his playing days, he failed two drug tests, and he only gave up recreational drug use for his final five seasons because a third positive drug test would have led to his permanent suspension from the NFL. The expected narrative for such an athlete is that his drug use destroys his career, making the overarching narrative one of unrealized potential and wasted talent. And yet that emphatically is not the story of Lawrence Taylor. In 13 seasons with the New York Giants, he won two Super Bowls, recorded a staggering 142 sacks, and earned Most Valuable Player honors, one of only two defensive players to ever be so honored. More fundamentally, he completely redefined the position of outside linebacker and forced opposing teams to reconfigure their offenses to deal with his terrifying presence. He’s generally considered the greatest defensive player of all time, and certainly LT: The Life & Times and its interview subjects do not hesitate to award him that title. Short of dragging the Giants to a couple more championships or winning still more unprecedented MVP awards, it’s difficult to see what more Taylor could possibly have done in his career.

As such, the part of the film devoted to his playing days can’t help but feel like a glossy highlights package. Taylor’s achievements are so incredible, so undeniable that they temporarily drown out the discussion of the personal demons that would haunt him in his retirement. The documentary fills this section with a plethora of interviews with former coaches, teammates, and opponents, all of whom rightly hail Taylor as an unprecedented defensive force. The trouble is that this unambiguous positivity, however justified, narrows the scope of the first half of the film. While the narration and some of the interviewees allude to Taylor’s drug use and growing disconnect from his family, these come across as mere asides, obligatory acknowledgments of a larger context that have to be dealt with before LT: The Life & Times can return to Taylor’s gridiron heroics. Indeed, this section sometimes seems more like a general Giants history than a recounting of Taylor’s personal story, as the focus occasionally strays onto his equally legendary head coach, Bill Parcells. This part of the film too often appears indistinguishable from a standard NFL Films retrospective, complete with the expected platitudes about Taylor’s scariness and dominance from quarterbacks turned analysts like Phil Simms, Ron Jaworski, Boomer Esiason, and Joe Theismann.

In particular, Theismann’s presence suggests a missed opportunity, as he suffered his infamously gruesome career-ending injury while being sacked by Taylor. While the injury was entirely accidental—Theismann has never blamed Taylor for what happened, and Taylor’s distress in the immediate aftermath of the play is plain to see—the documentary does point out that Taylor refused to discuss the play in interviews for decades thereafter. He breaks his silence here, as the documentary shows Taylor watching and reacting to the game tape. His reaction is strikingly detached, as he observes, “You hate to see that happen to anybody, especially a guy you know and respect.” His subsequent commentary comprises variations on “Ouch!” and “That hurts.” It’s not that Taylor needs to profess guilt or offer some profound insight about the play; indeed, such a moment would likely feel contrived. Ultimately, Theismann’s injury was just a horrible accident, and so perhaps there really isn’t all that much to say about it. But the film seems uninterested in placing the injury or Taylor’s dispassionate reaction in a larger context or incorporating it into its overall thesis. As such, this sequence, like so much from the first hour of the film, feels oddly weightless, included not because it’s a vital part of the film’s story but because it’s something everybody knows about Taylor.

This isn’t quite fair, because the story of his incredible on-field successes is the necessary setup for the story of his equally incredible off-field failures, although that only really becomes clear once the film actually gets to Taylor’s retirement. The mostly linear narrative—there’s a framing sequence depicting his daughter’s wedding, but the story otherwise is told in chronological order—proves a questionable fit for the film, because the two phases of Taylor’s life represent such unimaginably stark contrasts that they really deserve to be placed in more direct conversation with one another. As it stands, the film generally works much better in its second half, particularly when Taylor cedes storytelling duties to his ex-wife and his children, who recount the heartbreaking details of Taylor’s drug-fueled abandonment. The film firmly delineates its argument here, presenting Taylor as a terminally narcissistic man forever governed by his addictions, although it does suggest he has the rare ability to conquer his most dangerous habits and exchange them for more benign ones, such as golf.

Just as Taylor was no ordinary athlete—hell, he was no ordinary superstar—LT: The Life & Times suggests he is also no ordinary addict, and the man himself puckishly acknowledges his knack for skirting the consequences of his actions. It’s when he discusses his failures as a father that he is at his most vulnerable, as he breaks down in tears while talking about his adopted 7-year-old son Mali and the second chance at being a parent that he represents. His visible, agonizing guilt during his daughter’s wedding represents some the documentary’s rawest, most powerful material.  That moment lays bare an essential truth about Lawrence Taylor, that no matters what he does with his remaining years, he has already lost so much that can never be recovered. His braggadocio and larger-than-life personality thus come across as ways to obscure that distressing reality. The myth of the monstrous, invulnerable “L.T.” nearly destroyed Lawrence Taylor, but now it helps him survive—assuming he doesn’t screw it all up again, which, if this film is any indication, is sadly far from a safe assumption.

Stray observations:

  • The narration is provided by Jon Bon Jovi, of all people. His voiceover proves a shaky match for the tone suggested by the material, as his delivery suggests a less complicated, more positive portrait.
  • Taylor’s old defensive coordinator Bill Belichick is one of the interview subjects. Compared to his typical media appearances as coach of the New England Patriots, Belichick is downright locquacious here, and he still barely says anything.
  • One of the film’s most irrepressible characters is Taylor’s longtime best friend Dino Kyriacou, who is probably not who most people would have in mind if asked to picture Lawrence Taylor’s best friend. He tells a deeply off-color story about how he and Taylor first bonded during a round of golf, and he recounts how Taylor basically appeared in WrestleMania to cheer him up after the death of Kyriacou’s wife.
  • If nothing else, the last line of the documentary is just about perfect. If you’re at all interested in Taylor, I’d say the film is almost worth watching purely on the strength of its final line.