L.A. Film Festival: Facing Ali
Mon, 29 Jun 2009 07:46:37
A fight with Muhammad Ali was a life-changing experience.
That's what the astounding new documentary, Facing Ali [Lions Gate Films], illuminates. Director Peter McCormack explores Ali's life and legacy through the eyes of ten men that fought him during his legendary career. In between poignant and often painful interviews with the contenders, McCormack inter-cuts classic ring and press footage of the legend. Instead of simply re-telling Ali's story, McCormack goes up against convention and knocks it out, utilizing an intriguing and unique method to tell this man's story. The tale comes courtesy of men who knew Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali equally. Debuting at the L.A. Film Festival, Facing Ali proved to be one of the most powerful films on the circuit.
Facing Ali certainly is about Ali, but it's more about his influence on the lives of ten men he stood toe-to-toe with—Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, George Chuvalo, Ken Norton, Sir Henry Cooper, Ron Lyle, Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers, Ernie Terrell and George Forman. Ali touched and changed their lives in some way. A magnetic and bombastic presence, the former Cassius Clay never failed to draw attention to himself. Most of the time, it was because of his famous mouth, but he didn't even have to open it to show that he was different from his challengers.
Early on in the documentary, Foreman laughs, "He was tall, he was good-looking and everyone was jealous!" Ali's looks definitely set him apart, but he also carried himself differently. Of course he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee in the ring, but outside, he had what T.I. and Lil Wayne would call "swag." He may have even invented it.
Even though he wouldn't go to Vietnam, McCormack highlights the fact that Ali waged his own war on every fighter that stepped into the ring with him. Whether it was the Canadian George Chuvalo or England's Sir Henry Cooper, Ali had gloves and would travel. Chuvalo and Cooper both delve into their own sad back stories in discussing Ali. It's heart-wrenching to hear Chuvalo talking about his wife's suicide and kids' overdoses—even though he managed to send Ali to the hospital with bleeding kidneys. For Chuvalo, hurting Ali was some kind of validation, but his own pain remains overwhelming to this day. McCormack captures all of that in searing fashion.
The director allows these men to tell their stories, and he weaves them together via Ali. Joe Frazier became a hero when he beat Ali in 1971, but it wasn't without huge sacrifice. Foreman put it best, "Frazier was prepared to die in that ring." Watching Frazier speak now, that's instantly clear. Seeing the look of determination in his eyes from the archival footage is chilling. Guys like Frazier, Ken Norton and Ernie Terrell lived for that moment that the bell rang with Ali. It was all they had. Their personal struggles show the importance of that moment with Ali, and McCormack paints a picture of poverty, pain and addiction to the game. Frazier sits in his Philadelphia gym reminiscing, and it's thought-provoking to hear him talk about that 1971 fight. It changed everything for him (and the world at large). He was the first man to defeat the undefeatable, and those moments burn brighter for him today than ever.
Then there's Leon Spinks. Spinks was one of the few to beat Ali, but he always faced his own set of problems—ranging from drug accusations to Ali's derision. Still, those moments in the ring with Ali meant the world to him, and he shows that today.
By focusing on Ali's contenders, McCormack's cinematic tapestry opens doors into Ali that haven't been opened. When you're trading blows with someone and bleeding with them, you get to know them better than anyone else ever will. These are the best men to tell Ali's story; and it's never been told like this.
Ultimately, this is one of the year's best and most inspiring documentaries. Once it starts punching, it doesn't stop—just like Ali.