When We Were Kings

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Documentary;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG’ for images of violence, brief nudity and some language.
Featuring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton.

“No. No way. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to pay that much money to watch Ali get killed in the ring.”

That was me to my best friend in 1974 as the now famed, Zaire-set Rumble in the Jungle approached, the subsequent Rope-a-Dope bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman — long before the latter became the Anthony Bourdain of college dorms. This was the same friend with whom I’d seen the closed-circuit broadcast of Ali-Frazier II in Washington, D.C.’s long extinct RKO Keith’s — right round the corner-and-change from the White House and we were the only white guys in the raucously wild-ass balcony (an experience). Later, we’d see Ali in person win a close and controversial decision against Jimmy Young up in Landover, MD. But as for the Rumble, I wouldn’t go back to the Keith’s or anywhere the fight was transmitted, thus missing the century-caliber upset of which Oscar-winning documentaries are made. Which is what happened with 1996’s When We Were Kings, one of my favorite movies of any kind ever made.

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Ali’s imminent death or at least serious maiming was the common wisdom at the time, stated by no less than Norman Mailer (author of The Fight, a book I love) and George Plimpton, all the way down to just about any person on the street, which by that time was where Richard Nixon was not quite three months after his resignation. Everyone knew that Ali was too old and too sapped (particularly by what the U.S. government had done to him), while Foreman was a sullen destroyer still eons away from a subsequent and complete alteration of his personal image, one arguably more jolting than Frank Sinatra’s and Dick Powell’s put together. Whereas Ali eventually spent most of his time actively charming the locals and then some, Foreman showed up in Zaire with a German shepherd, which was not the pet of choice for all the Africans who remembered or knew about British colonialism, which was just about everybody.

This all became the nucleus of the film but not by design. The original intention was to film a concert thrown in as an extra added PR attraction by Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko, a typically bloody-handed despot who also embezzled billions, which makes you wonder if he regarded the bout’s promoter Don King as a soul brother. But during the lead-up, Foreman walked into a training camp elbow — delaying the fight for six weeks perilously close to the rainy season. The concert dates and performers were bound by contracts, and these were heavy hitters: James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Celia Cruz and more. The three-nighter was filmed, albeit with no one in the audience for the first two nights, thanks to the postponed main event. And in the interim, filmmaker Leon Gast began to think that there might be a more novel documentary out there, dealing with Ali’s spiritual renewal with the African people who adored him. Plus, of course, the fight itself.

Cut to a modest wait of maybe two decades when Gast finally got the money (thank you, producer David Sonenberg) to begin assembling what he had from a few skyscrapers’ worth of shot material. The filmmaker wisely elected not to distract from what truly mattered by now, making the concert a presence but definitely a sideline affair. Eventually, much more of the music footage formed the basis for 2008’s theatrically released Soul Power, which in typically classy Criterion fashion is included on this release as well (it actually runs a teensy bit longer than Kings). Not exactly a concert film per se, it deals as much with its own backstage material and is a little like Murray Lerner’s Festival in that regard. The No. 1 reality it conveys is the intense heat endured by the performers (at least the fighters were mostly stripped down). The Spinners are dripping with sweat by the time they hit their first note, and, like most artists showcased, are wearing performing duds. Though the Spinners drummer, no fool, seems to be saying the hell with that and is in a t-shirt.

Back to the fight. The final capper to transform a superb documentary into an all-timer came when friend-of-the-production Taylor Hackford took a look at assembled footage and decided that a few perspective-oriented voices might round things out: Mailer, Plimpton, Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, Spike Lee. Watching Mailer talk about anything — and do we ever need him and all his first-person pseudonyms in the present political climate — puts most movies in the shade just by itself. Also great to see is Lee’s appalled reaction to the fact most young people know almost nothing when it comes to even recent history — while Plimpton gets to end the picture on a perfect anecdotal note following a couple spectacular climactic peaks: the fight itself and then one of the best music-backed photo montages I’ve ever seen to the celebratory title tune.

It’s also sweet to see Mailer given the opportunity to laud the beloved individual that Foreman eventually became, and unlike Frazier (who became understandably embittered at the adulation Ali accumulated) looked after the now handicapped champ on and offstage when Kings took the Oscar that was only its due (it had previously cleaned up in critics’ awards as well). When deciding whether or not to give the movie a “go” when an assemblage was put together, Foreman ended up seeing it 11 times, which we have to take as an affirmative. He said every viewing convinced him that he was going to win, but Ali, of course, had successfully tired out Foreman by enduring several rounds’ worth of the latter’s sideline punches while leaning against the ropes, outlasting a totally intimidating force until he could score a knockout in the eighth.

After damage inflicted here and also by Frazier and certainly by 22 subsequent bouts, Ali never lost his intelligence, but his motor skills were shot for the rest of his life. As a result, what happened to him accomplished what my seeing Benny “Kid” Paret beaten to a delayed death from a March 24, 1962, beating on ABC’s “Fight of the Week” did not: Make me lose my taste for boxing despite fervent fandom that went back at least to the three Patterson-Johansson contests and extended through all the Saturday ABC-TV broadcasts (was there a Basilio-Fullmer LXVIII?; it seemed like it).

Years after the Rumble, on the way back to my hotel after the New York press screening of Terrence Malick’s already mesmerizing film of James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, I saw Ali standing out in front of his hotel on the corner of 54th Street and Avenue of the Americas posing tolerantly (maybe even contentedly) next to one more yahoo whose buddy had an Instamatic. I’d never been more tempted to go the same yahoo route myself (of course, it would have helped if I were carrying a camera in those pre-cellphone days) but finally rejected the thought. This, however, didn’t keep me from stopping in my tracks and staring for as long as was socially acceptable; I felt I was in the presence of a king. That’s where this documentary puts you, hence its title, as Mailer, B.B. King and The Godfather of Soul rounds out a Murderer’s Row of royalty.

Mike’s Picks: ‘When We Were Kings’ and ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’

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