From Universal comes this documentary on the greatest sportsman of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali. All in all, this is a nice little special edition on an interesting time of the American landscape and a fascinating man who was the touchstone for a generation.
Facts of the Case
From his early days growing up in Louisville, Kentucky to his ascension as the greatest heavyweight boxer the world has ever known, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World chronicles the many paths the man named Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, has gone down. Told through newsreels and interviews, this disc gives us a sense of the times and the man who helped change them.
I will admit two things right off the bat that would certainly seem to conflict. I am not a boxing fan. Any sport ruled over by the likes of Don King and that has that thug Mike Tyson as its most recognizable figure is barely worth the attention of any sentient being. I am, however, a fan of Muhammad Ali. Let me correct that…I am a huge fan of Muhammad Ali. If, as its strongest proponents say, boxing is the "sweet science," well, Muhammad Ali was the Albert Einstein of the ring. The man was graceful in the battlefield. He was a warrior with a combination of speed, brawn, elegance, beauty, and supreme intelligence. He was and continues to be an entertainer with a smile that lights up the darkest corner. Yet, with all that said, he was so much more than a mere boxer, a mere entertainer. Like all the greatest artists, Ali transcended his own arena. This man, this boxer, became a revolutionary, but Muhammad Ali was a revolutionary in the finest sense of the word. He was a man who would lead a generation on a path of discovery. The discovery that a human being could truly grow beyond his surroundings, indeed beyond even himself. He showed that a person could remain true to their inner core but grow and become different or better. He showed that with strength of character a person was capable of carrying the heaviest of burdens with the lightest of walks. To me and to all the people that appear in this film, Muhammad Ali is a hero.
Director Phil Grabsky has done a nice job of taking the many high points of a remarkable life and condensing them into a brisk running time. He is able to pick and choose the spots that he wants to focus in on while still keeping the entire production slick but substantive. It's a daunting task, but the director proves he was up to the challenge.
Told from the point of view of various talking heads and peppered with numerous pieces of newsreel footage, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World traces Ali's path of discovery and growth. It's amazing but true; to watch Ali fight is to watch and put into perspective the most turbulent period of social change these United States have ever known. From the segregation of the deep South of the late 1950s, to the civil rights movement, through the hell that was the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali was there strutting and standing tall through all of it. Simply put, the man was a lighting rod during all this change and this turmoil. Even when the subject matter at hand was somber, Ali was a man with a smile lurking beneath the surface. The film also shows his amazing ability to rhyme at a moment's notice, a gift that has caused many to enshrine Ali as the world's first rapper. To its credit, the film refuses to shy away from his numerous marriages and his fathering of children out of wedlock. It chooses instead to deal with these issues in an even handed and non-exploitative fashion. This film further balances itself by showing that he was not a perfect man and that some of his choices were slightly misguided, but that through it all he did indeed maintain both his integrity and his dignity. The movie also serves as a painful reminder to the world of what the sport that Ali so dearly loved did to his life because he stuck around too long. It should be noted that the movie takes great pains to show that Ali does not deserve or need our pity. Indeed, the pity we feel should not be for Ali but for us. We were the ones who were robbed and that is a very sad discovery indeed.
The disc is presented in anamorphic widescreen at the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and for what it is, it looks pretty good. Bear in mind that the film culls from several dozen different news sources to show its historical footage, so the overall quality is bound to be uneven. It is an expected mixed bag with some of the older footage looking great, while other parts simply showing their age. Obviously the video interviews done for the film come off looking best, but the general feeling I got was that a lot of time and care was put into the disc. The image shows little in the way of enhancement, blacks remain fairly solid, and the picture boasts a very good level of detail.
Audio is "processed 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround," though what processed means I really could not tell you. What I can report is that the disc is, no matter what it claims to be, basically a big, fat mono. Not that there is anything wrong with that. The sound is crisp, clean, and for the most part, full sounding. Dialogue is easily understood, and that is pretty much all the sound needs to be. If I want to hear the sound of Ali beating the crap out of someone, I'll just wait for the DVD of Michael Mann's Ali.
There are some limited but quality features in the supplemental section. First up is the world view of Ali told through the memories and impressions of fans throughout the globe. Listen and learn what people from Japan, England, Russia, and many other regions have to say about Ali. Then there are unseen interviews or deleted interviews. The best of the bunch is Billy Crystal's and I think it should have been included in the final cut, but it wasn't so there you go. Also, if I had any doubt before seeing Rod Steiger's deleted bit, it simply confirmed my suspicions that he is a total loon. There is also a still gallery, a music video that is fairly easy to pass up, and a section called Fight Chronology that basically takes you to the point in the film when Ali started boxing professionally. Strange. There is a trailer for the documentary, an extremely short featurette on the stage production called "Ali," and the disc is closed out by a feature on the Ali Center. All in all, it's a nice package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So that nobody will think this is a total Ali lovefest, I do have a couple of criticisms. I understand that this is a documentary on Ali, his rise to fame, and his journey through the years. Still, to not mention Howard Cosell and his place in the building of the mythos of Muhammad Ali is a crime. Ali may have been the smiling, rhyming cock-of-the-walk, but Cosell was the straight man for Ali's antics and one of his staunchest supporters.
Make no mistake: this is a very good documentary and it provides a very good overview to Ali, his life and his times. Yet, it does not possess the power or the narrative thrust of Leon Gast's 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. I suppose it is hardly fair to compare the two. With Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World we are dealing with his entire life and career while When We Were Kings simply deals with his 1974 bout against George Foreman and the famous "rumble in the jungle." Also, with the film on trial here today we get speakers like Rod Steiger and Richard Harris. To me they are a poor substitute for the presence of people like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton in the latter film.
Ali. At once one of the most hated men in all of sports, yet also at the same time, one of the most beloved. Ali. The man who refused his slave given name and the man who embraced a new faith. Ali. The man who turned his back on his heavyweight title because no one in Vietnam had "ever called me a nigger." Ali. The only man to fight his way to four heavyweight boxing titles. Ali. The giant of a man who today fights Parkinson's disease. This is the man that is on display in Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World. It is a motion picture of strength and of history. Boxing fans, fans of social studies, and fans of the man himself could do a lot worse than to pick this disc up. To top it all off, a portion of the proceeds benefit the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. If that is not reason enough to buy the thing, then I don't know what is.
Acquitted. Innocent of all charges. This is a fascinating look at one of the most influential men of the century just past. So "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" to your local retailer and pick this disc up.
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