Muhammad Ali – The Greatest

Movie Review by Dr Kuma

Starring: Muhammad Ali

Director: William Klein

Talk about life imitating art!

It is now universally accepted that Ali is a true icon of the 20 th Century. However, don’t be put off by the fact that the movie is about a sports personality. It is also a movie of politics, religion, stardom and the human psyche.

The first half of this movie is exquisite to look at. This is because the man behind the lens is the photographer William Klein. Virtually every frame of the first hour is similar to flipping through a black and white book of the greatest pictures of Ali ever taken. Some amazing footage of Ali meeting The Beatles, interviews with all the boxing legends (Liston et al) and Malcolm X are just some highlights. Because a hand held camera was used, the intimacy of the whole thing makes you feel that you are actually there. I haven’t been as impressed with the look of a film (or documentary) since Bruce Webber’s excellent film on the great Jazz icon Chet Baker in LET’S GET LOST. It really is that beautiful to look at and some of the angles and shots actually surpass the Webber picture in sheer beauty and impact. It is fascinating to see the way Ali’s success transcended to the black population. How he seemed to become a spokesman (while still Cassius Clay) for an entire black (and young American) generation. Some of these young blacks talk about how they are native American’s and should be treated as such and not allocated to ‘reservations’, which we now refer to as ghettos. It really is fascinating to become an intricate part of the black dance halls and churches of the 60’s through the eye and microphone of Klein’s camera.

Although Ali is obviously a fabulous character and very lucid (his monologue of white America is still amusing even after you’ve seen it repeated from several old chat shows), he could also come across as annoying. His ‘flout like a butterfly’ ode to himself is as recognisable as any advertising tagline, but you can see and hear that it was drummed into people twenty four seven before it became his calling card. Really, this is what the movie shows. That Ali’s greatest fight was making sure everyone knew who Ali was. It’s again very interesting to see that Ali was virtually forgotten when he refused to ‘kill his Vietnamese brothers’ when he was asked to draft. It was only after Americans realised that the whole war had been a mistake that he was allowed to return to the limelight via boxing.

The movie, as stated, mirrors Ali’s life. The first half on it’s own would be the greatest sporting documentary/movie of all time had it finished before the Vietnam incident. The young, clever, energetic, and articulate Ali was at his all time high and rightly describes himself as “a perfect specimen of man”. He is funny, reflective and above all, someone who was taken seriously and could undermine governments never mind news reporters with a quip or more importantly a statement.

It’s when the second half of the movie starts that we see Ali has become a sort of caricature of himself and we see the sad way things would end. Although everyone thinks that the Foreman/Ali ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ is the greatest fight of all time, it is the coverage of this period (the movie itself covers 10 years in Ali’s life 1964-74), which pales in comparison to what went before. Not only is Ali not as creative or as powerful (his quips and answers are laughed at rather than admired) Klein’s use of the camera also transforms from stunning to pedestrian.

I really do think that Klein’s 60’s work is some of the most impressive footage of the period I have ever seen and it is worth seeing this picture for that alone. But, unfortunately, like Ali, the second half seems tagged on to cash in on the interest in Ali generated by the Will Smith biopic ALI, which is on its way. It will be interesting to see who’s left standing in the battle of comparisons.

Dr Kuma’s verdict: Not the greatest sporting picture, but for the first half, a real contender. Even if we never get to actually see footage of the fights, the build up and the characters dotted throughout the picture (especially the members of relevant boxing cartels) make a fascinating picture taken from the canvass of the boxing ring.

4 out of 6 stars