“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Aaagh! Rumble, young man, rumble, aaagh!”
We’ve seen, heard and read a lot about Muhammad Ali, truly one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. His story is legendary, a fascinating succession of great hardships and even greater victories. He might not have been as articulate and wise as Martin Luther King, but symbolically at least, Ali did as much to empower African-Americans as the good doctor.
“Muhammad Ali The Greatest” is not the best film on Ali (that’s probably “When We Were Kings”), but director William Klein has a very distinctive and stimulating vision. A photographer more than a filmmaker, Klein bypasses most conventional documentary techniques. No voice-over, no stiff talking heads segments, not even extended fight footage and commentary… If you’re looking for in-depth information about Ali’s background and his boxing style, this is not the place to find it. In fact, it is probably not a bad thing to have previous knowledge of the facts of Ali’s life beforehand because “The Greatest” rarely stops to fill you in.
Basically, what Klein did was follow Ali during the two key years of his career: 1964, when he defeated Sonny Liston and became Heavyweight Champion of the World, and 1974, when he went to Zaire to fight George Foreman at the “Rumble in the Jungle”. What results is something not unlike A Hard Day’s Night (the Beatles actually make an appearance, to ask for Ali’s autograph!), a very loose and natural cinéma vérité film rocking and rolling with all the attitude, the energy and the political conviction that made Ali the Greatest.
“Big Mouth” Cassius Clay takes a lot of place, of course, always in display and breathing charisma, boasting about how pretty and strong and fast he is:
“Only last week I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick
I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”
Yet the film spends as much time on the sidelines, recording the effect Ali has on everyone around him: his fans, his detractors, students in Harlem, Malcolm X (who was interviewed two weeks before he was assassinated), the African people (who nearly revere him, taking to the streets chanting “Ali Boumayé!”- “Ali kill him”!).
We don’t see the long, strenuous legal mess Ali went through as the ONLY public figure in America to oppose the war not only in words (“No Vietnamese ever called me nigger”) but in action (he refused to get drafted, which caused him to be stripped of his title and his boxing license). But when we see Ali again, training for the Rumble in the Jungle, we can see all the unrest he went through on his face. He’s no longer the carefree young man we saw in the first half of the film. He’s now weary, hardened… But still driven and confident and powerful. Foreman didn’t have a chance, Ali would get his title back. He was and still is The Greatest.
“Muhammad Ali The Greatest” will be released for the first time on DVD on January 14, 2003 by Facets Multimedia. The 110 minute feature is presented in a pristine transfer respecting the original 16mm format, in black & white (for the 1964 scenes) and in color (for the 1974 scenes). The DVD also includes 25 minutes of scene-specific commentary by director William Klein. To order, you can call 1 800 331 6197 or visit www.facets.org