|Flying Squirrel Boxing Productions|
|The KO Picture Show|
|Presents. . .|
|When We Were Kings (1996)|
|"Best Documentary Oscar 1996. Maybe the GREATEST boxing documentary... (wait for it...) OF ALL-TIME!"|
|Is there anything worse than a bad storyteller? Anything more interminable than someone demanding your attention and then doing absolutely nothing to hold it? Are you reading this and saying, "NO, THERE ISN'T! Now get on with the review before I click over to the IMDb!" I apologize. My point is, documentaries, more so than any other form of cinema, rely on good storytelling to flesh out their plot.
With so much of the camera time spent pointed at, more often than not, every day non-actors, there's usually only two paths that a documentarian will take to hold our attention. The first is what I like to call the "Michael Moore Technique" of basically making the interviewee the straight man for his brand of barely veiled sardonicism. He injects himself into the story, expresses his own views, and then augments the strength of those views by presenting those who don't agree with him. Usually the person being interviewed is presenting their views in an off-the-cuff manner, with the end result being that they don't sound all that bright. But then there's those staunch ideologues that he interviews who know exactly what they're saying, and come off sounding "scary" rather than just "stupid". Either way, Moore is the star of these movies, rather than his "subjects", and no matter what you may think of his personal views, there's no denying that he is a good storyteller.
The other tact the documentarian can take is often more effective in my eyes, and that's simply letting those interviewed tell the story. In the case of "When We Were Kings", director Leon Gast had some fantastic first person perspectives to draw from (with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton doing the lion's share of the recollecting), but it was the candid footage that he collected in the months leading up to the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali that was the most compelling.
As someone who was a mere 9 months old when the events of this film were playing out, I can't say I have any memories of my own to associate with it. Like so many others my age, when I hear the name "George Foreman", I immediately think "Grill", and then see Big George's smiling, bald, cherubic face in my head. But this movie succeeds by showing us Big George Foreman, version 1.0: a young, massive, dour, and feared man who was viewed as a nigh invincible force within the heavyweight division.
And while many of us are already familiar with Muhammad Ali's boisterous and charismatic visage from years past, here we are shown footage of a much younger Cassius Clay juxtaposed with the man that would be stepping into the ring on that fateful night of October 30th, 1974. While fantastic physical attributes might have propelled him to the championship before, it was a sheer force of will that steadied him this time at 32 years of age.
Fused with the intrinsic drama of a heavyweight title fight is also footage of a planned music festival that played out in Kinshasa before the "Rumble In The Jungle", starring James Brown, B.B. King, and a host of other top African American acts at the time. To say that their performances are electrifying may seem a bit cliché, but there's really no other word for it. The music transcends time, even if the clothes they're wearing don't (The Godfather of Soul models a number of alarming pantsuits throughout, and sports a rarely worn mustache that is nothing short of breathtaking. It has mass, much like a hairy moon hovering just in front of his face).
And all of this was made possible by two other men with sheer forces of will (not to mention, differing levels of sadism in them), promoter Don King and the dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Suko. This pair of powerful men are shown in all their flawed splendor, nudging the will of this contained universe of "Zaire 1974" as they please. It's pleasing to see the evolution of Mr. King's vertically integrated hairdo (which Norman Mailer hilariously draws the comparison to "A man falling down an elevator shaft".)
King has become a parody of himself in recent years, with the perpetual grin, the bedazzled denim jacket, his fists wrapped around tiny little American flags pumping away with involuntary patriotic fervor, while he expounds the hype incessantly. But the footage in 1974 shows a much more beguiling man; a verbose and charismatic force of nature (unfortunately his fashion sense was as off target then as it is now. One pair of picnic tablecloth-inspired coveralls in particular could make a gargoyle jump.) The funniest part of it all is, even with a man as prone to hyperbole as King, the entire event lives up to it's billing.
The Rumble in the Jungle was bluster-proof.
|The Fightin'! -|
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|The training footage is unparalleled. We're given an in-depth look at both Ali and Foreman's style of workout. Ali looks as light as air, even at this stage of his career. He puts in his roadwork, he shadowboxes, he screams and sings. His style of fiery, non-stop oration could be considered a workout in and of itself. Big George is shown doing what he does best; laying into the heavy bag with the kind of force that makes strong men wither. It's all narrated to perfection by Mailer and Plimpton.
And this footage together with the concert footage builds in tenor until we finally get to the crescendo of fight night. The images from that night in the ring are as indelible as any in boxing. Foreman's red trunks. Ali urging the crowd on. Big George pounding away at Ali, who's in full rope-a-dope splendor. And the commentary from Mailer and Plimpton is made all the more significant because we can actually SEE them THERE in 1974 as they talk to us in 1996. It's as good as it gets.
It sounds corny, but this movie has the ability to transport you. Even if you have no point of reference for the time period, it's like a time machine. The clothes, the sounds, the people; They all pull you in to this very specific event and time. But never in a maudlin way. It's way too celebratory and electric to ever invoke sadness. It only makes you WANT to be there again. To relive such a fantastic event. The only longing I felt while watching it was a longing for that level of spectacle in boxing again. That level of event. It's easy to point to Ali and say HE elevated the fight to this status, HE created the phenomenon. But one also has to avert their gaze from the Sun that is Ali, and notice the man behind it all, Mr. Don King. One hopes that King hasn't become so jaded by the money and the politics of boxing (which he helped create and perpetuate) that he can't help steer the sport BACK to that level of occasion. If he can't, then I wait anxiously for the day that a new promoter will help bring the sport back to the prominence it once had. I miss the spectacle.
It wasn't until the end of the documentary that I realized why this particular one was so special. Because so much of the storytelling in this style of movie is done second hand, rather than being filmed live, there's often just still pictures along with the recollections. This lends a sort of iconic air to anything you happen to be speaking about. A still photo accompanied by a story is compelling. But in this case, we are seeing TRUE icons. Walking, talking, singing, and, most importantly, fighting icons. Don King, James Brown, B.B. King, George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali; These men don't just lend their faces to a story. They demand that their stories be told.
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|Starring: Muhammad Ali,
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