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Thousands of hands clapping, the thunderous cries of an ecstatic crowd, a glorious finish with a standing ovation, no, this is not a sports event, it is the premiere of “Jayhawkers,” the new Kevin Willmott film based around the University of Kansas, and the life of former basketball player Wilt Chamberlain.

“Jayhawkers,” which was shot back in 2012, was conceived years ago under the name “Wilt of Kansas.” Willmott says the idea to make a movie about Chamberlain, a National Basketball Association superstar, as well as a former member of the University of Kansas’ basketball team, came shortly after his death in 1999. The original film was to be a biography about Chamberlain’s entire life, but budgetary restraints caused Willmott to condense the scope to focus on key moments in the lives of multiple people, including former KU coach Forrest “Phog” Allen, KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy and Chamberlain.

“We couldn’t raise the money to make the big film, and when that stalled we made other movies,” he said. “Coach Self suggested Justin (KU basketball player Justin Wesley) for the role, and that’s when I decided to really make a much smaller film and make it about “Phog,” Chancellor Murphy and Wilt, and that’s when Jayhawkers was really born.”

The part biography, part dramatic comedy, and part historical commentary flick premiered in Lawrence, Kan. last Friday the 14 at the Lied Center. Showtime for the film was at 7:00 p.m. but that did not stop plenty of eager moviegoers from arriving well in advance. The sold-out film was shown in the Lied Center’s main, two-story auditorium, which has a max capacity of 2,000 people.

Early reception for “Jayhawkers,” from audiences and in terms of ticket sales, has been very positive. According to Tamara Falicov of KU Film & Media Studies, almost 7,000 people attended the film’s premiere. Willmott has been thrilled by the audience feedback so far.

“It’s been really great. People seem to really love the film and there was a lot of excitement before the film,” he said. “I think people were just really anxious to see this story told. We’d always gotten a lot of support for the film. It was a really great event.”

The experience at the premiere reflects Willmott’s enthusiasm. Nearly the whole audience chimed-in to laugh, cheer and clap on multiple occasions during the initial screening. When the movie ended, the applause lasted for over a minute, with Willmott himself having to calm the audience down to close the premiere with more thanks. As he left the stage the audience once again resumed cheering and applauding. As the applause subsided, and patrons began to leave the theater, they chatted amongst each other about the film, most of what they were saying being positive.

“It was exciting, because I knew a lot of people in it,” said Barbara Ballard, assistant director of the University of Kansas’ Dole Institute of Politics. “It was like watching a story you’ve heard before, but it went into so much more detail. It was just fun and exciting to watch.”.

The premiere weekend seems like a resounding success for “Jayhawkers,” and if the audience numbers at the Lied Center are any indication, the film is looking at a successful future. While the film currently is in limited release, it is set to have a wider release when it opens in Kansas City, Kan., later this spring. For those interested in seeing “Jayhawkers” sooner, but missed the premiere, the movie will be showing again on Friday February 28, at Liberty Hall, located in downtown Lawrence.

Side Note – here is my audio review of “Jayhawkers”

Audio Transcript

Alex Keenan (Me):

Jayhawkers” in its original conception, was to be a biography about Wilt Chamberlain.  Beginning with his death at his home in 1999, the movie would then have jumped back “Citizen Kane” style to earlier key moments in Chamberlain’s life. The film released this year is less biography, more historical-commentary, with the lives of Chamberlain, two KU basketball coaches Phog Allen and Dick Harp, and the university’s chancellor Frank Murphy serving as the main characters of the film. Set during the 1950’s, Chamberlain, played with conviction by first time actor, and KU basketball player Justin Wesley, is visiting KU under recommendation for recruitment onto the Kansas Jayhawks. Shortly after his arrival, Wilt discovers the hardships of being a black college student in rural America. Though “Jayhawkers” draws attention to the issues of racial segregation in the twentieth century, the film is more about the effort to inspire change in Kansas’ views on racial equality. The movie has traditional scenes of segregation, colored man enters store, gets shooed out by white person, and so on. It doesn’t demonize or glorify either side however, and rather it just points out that these sorts of horrible situations occurred. Aside from Chamberlain, the story also focuses heavily on the life of “Phog” Allen. Set during the tail-end of his career as a basketball coach, Allen hopes that Wilt’s recruitment onto the Jayhawks will give them the edge they need to win another championship before his retirement from coaching college ball. Aside from providing an intelligent, restrained look at progressivism and change in racial equality, the “Jayhawkers” touches on notions of perseverance and determination. “Phog,” played masterfully by Kip Niven, wants so badly to prove that Chamberlain can change basketball and force the sport to open-up to players with talent, regardless of their race.  All the while, “Phog” struggles with accepting that his old age is catching up with him. Another standout performance is given by Jay Karnes, known for his roles in USA Network’s Burn Notice, and FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Murphy is a man determined to make KU a university of equality, and Karnes captures the Chancellor’s refined, professional demeanor perfectly. In addition to the great acting across the board, “Jayhawkers” benefits strongly from its aesthetic presentation. An independent, and relatively low-budget endeavor, “Jayhawkers” takes a less-is-more approach to storytelling, and lets its locations, rather than extravagant set pieces, do its storytelling. The film is shot entirely in black and white, with the lights and darks contrasting beautifully, especially in a nightclub set shown frequently in the film. The all-jazz soundtrack further complements the aged look and feel, and the props and sets are all era-appropriate. It’s a great-looking and sounding film all around. “Jayhawkers” is a great experience. Its basketball scenes may be lacking the flair of larger-budget sports flicks, but the history and culture behind the film, lend the scenes a sense of importance and familiarity. The characters are all brought to life by the well-rounded cast, and the story is one of historical significance. Whether you’re a fan of sports films or just looking for a good period piece, it’s easy to recommend giving this a look.

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