Muhammad Ali, the Greatest is a very odd movie. On different websites it’s listed as having a release date of 1964 or 1969, which is impossible since it is a documentary covering events from roughly 1964 to 1974. My impression is it was released quite recently, though there are no interviews or anything in the film that appear to come from any time after 1974.
So maybe it was made in the mid-1970s and either never released at all or released and went nowhere and was forgotten, and then more recently it was dug up and issued as a DVD.
Anyway, I have really, really mixed feelings about this one.
Ali was the most important figure in my life in my childhood. I was a huge fan, and even as a young adult continued to read and watch everything I could get my hands on about Ali.
Over time, not surprisingly, that faded, as I developed other interests, became intrigued by other figures, became somewhat less of a sports fan, became drastically less of a boxing fan specifically (it went from being my clear favorite sport to one today I don’t follow at all), and of course as Ali dropped farther out of the public eye due to age and failing health.
So it ceased being the case that anything about Ali automatically had my interest. Partly that was because I knew all this stuff backwards and forwards; it wasn’t like informative new revelations were likely this many decades later.
No doubt I retain a soft spot for Ali and the story of his life and career, just from it having been so important to me for so long.
As far as this film, it’s so peculiar that I’m not even sure where to begin in describing it and its pros and cons.
OK, I’ll start with the style of the film. It’s maybe unconventional enough to be called avant garde. I even thought of the largely incomprehensible Looking for Langston as I watched it. Of all the feature length documentaries I’ve written about so far, this comes closest to that kind of impressionistic style. It’s not as extreme, but it too is a collage of clips cobbled together more to create a certain feel than to tell a coherent story. It too includes material connected to the titular subject of the film in only a vague thematic way, albeit not nearly as much as in Looking for Langston.
This would be a horrible introductory film about Ali. There’s a lot in it that I was able to appreciate because I already knew so much about the events being depicted, and about the various people involved, but a newbie wanting to learn about Ali and what was the big deal about him would surely find this befuddling and uninformative.
Then again, that assumes a newbie is looking to be informed. I, for instance, found Looking for Langston mostly frustrating and unrewarding because I had only the barest background knowledge of Langston Hughes and the film didn’t try to help me in that regard. But it may be that for a lot of people, maybe of a more artistic bent, that’s not a priority in watching an avant garde or non-traditional piece like this. Maybe they could be very drawn in emotionally by this treatment of Ali, and not focused on its not making sense to them.
The film does not cover all of Ali’s career, but instead in effect presents three snapshots from it. 98% of the movie is about the 1964 title winning upset against Sonny Liston as a 22 year old, the 1965 rematch against Liston, and the 1974 fight where Ali regained his title in the unlikeliest of fashions against George Foreman (who was basically a young version of Sonny Liston). The other 2% is the entire rest of his life and career up to 1974.
But even insofar as it’s “about” those three fights, you don’t get to actually see those fights (or any others). I assume because they couldn’t get the rights to films of Ali’s fights, almost all that’s shown of the bouts themselves are still photos. The one exception—which makes me wonder if it was in part an artistic decision and not just a legal issue—is the film opens with a staccato series of disjointed, and I’m almost sure out of order, clips from the first Liston fight.
Nor can one infer in any but the vaguest way what happened in those fights (much beyond simply that Ali won). All of the crucial elements to the storylines of those fights—Ali being temporarily blinded by a substance on Liston’s gloves in the first fight, the bizarre mix-ups over the count when Liston was knocked out in the second fight—are left out.
Again, if you’re looking for information about Ali’s career, what you’ll get from this film is very little, presented very inefficiently.
It’s really more about the social, political, and biographical context of these three fights, though even that only in a very impressionistic way. So for instance, there are clips of the 1960s Ali making “Black Muslim” type racial separatist statements (with only the slightest background about when and how Ali got involved with the Nation of Islam, the nature of that organization, etc., etc.) There are scenes of Ali and Foreman meeting with dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko in Zaire before their title fight there. And so on.
There are also tangential clips to give more of a feel of the “times” part of a “life and times” approach, but not conventional items of history that you would see as context in a standard documentary. For example, the most tangential of them is a series of clips from some kind of acting class of African American youths in the ’60s, talking about Ali, talking about race, putting together plays or performance art about race, etc., just to give a feel of the sorts of ideas that were in the air at the time, the way perspectives were changing.
It’s also important to note that the visuals in the film are at least as unconventional as the idiosyncratic choices of material and the somewhat nonlinear way that material is organized into a film.
Almost all the film clips are super close-ups, or framed oddly where the presumably main people and events aren’t centered, or shot from weird angles, or cropped to where parts of people’s faces are eliminated, etc. Mostly extreme close-ups. All very artsy stuff. For me, about 10% fascinatingly novel and 90% annoying.
I could maybe, almost, see throwing in a few odd shots like this as an interesting change of pace, but here it’s pretty much the whole movie. I would have much preferred being able to see what was going on.
I’ve focused so far on the things that stand out about this film that I disliked, or that are unconventional, and about what the film leaves out. But as I say, my opinion of this film is very mixed.
The main positive is that there is some flat out terrific footage in this film, especially for an Ali buff. What’s really surprising is that it’s all so new to me. I feel like I’ve seen—typically multiple times—just about every “public” piece of footage from Ali’s career by now, but I’ll bet 90% of the material in this movie I’d never seen.
There’s the Beatles on their initial trip to the U.S. in February 1964 visiting Ali (then Cassius Clay, and not yet champion, but already fairly well-known due to incessant self-promotion) at the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach training for Liston. (I’d read of the encounter of course, and seen still photos, but never film of it I don’t believe.) There’s Angelo Dundee and Liston’s people bickering at a meeting concerning assigning officials to the first Liston fight. There’s Ali casually gabbing with friends and fans about the second Liston fight on a hotel balcony. There’s Ali and his people carrying on on a bus trip to the site of the second Liston fight. There’s the panning of ticket takers at the Foreman fight as they give their predictions (pretty much all Foreman by early knockout). There’s Ali in 1965 bantering with Stepin Fetchit, one of the most unlikely temporary members of his entourage.
Funny, interesting, offbeat, etc. (and virtually all of it not as appealing to me as the same material shot in a non-headache-inducing way would have been).
I even thought most of the peripheral stuff was well chosen, or at least interesting enough to get my attention, like the clips of Malcolm X—heck even some of that drama class stuff.
It’s also always fun picking out familiar folks from the footage, from all my years following Ali. There’s a lot of Bundini, there’s Youngblood and Kilroy and others from the entourage, Ali’s parents, both a ’60s and a ’70s Norman Mailer, Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott, masseur/trainer Luis Sarria, and on and on.
Of course it would have been nice if the film had actually identified these folks. They’re often just a face in a crowd or someone walking by in the background of a shot, and even when they have a speaking part in a clip, if you don’t already know who they are, you won’t find out here.
For that matter, I didn’t catch all of them. There are ex-fighters and others in the movie whose names I’m sure I would recognize, but they aren’t identified.
The quirky organization of the film, the scattershot ordering of clips to create an impression of Ali or the times more than to inform, grew on me to a limited extent. The bizarre camerawork less so.
Still, it’s unique enough in those ways to pique my interest, and to make me hesitate to condemn it too strongly for being too artsy. I’d have preferred something more conventional, but I say that with a bit of a “Yeah, but…” feeling.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is I’m glad there are a few experimental, avant garde type films like this as a change of pace. I prefer that to a world where all films are more the standard, linear, understandable type (which in turn I prefer to a world where all films are avant garde like this—whatever appeal this kind of thing has to me comes largely from its nature of being an exception).
So if that’s all there was to Muhammad Ali, the Greatest, I’d give it a “Not really my type, but probably worth seeing just for the novelty factor and if you’re more the artsy sort” assessment. But because I got a kick out of so much of the footage that was (surprisingly) new to me, I enjoyed this movie more than would be reflected in that kind of qualified endorsement.