THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
It's incredible that Muhammed Ali: The Greatest is not considered one of the best sports documentaries ever made. Made in a gritty cinema verite style, William Klein's seminal documentary looks at the world's most famous athlete both from an intensely intimate perspective and from a broader world view. His style changes radically throughout: At times it is reminiscent of the Maysles' work in films like Grey Gardens, observing the world in long unbroken takes. Other times it becomes startlingly stylized, in some interviews and in some outstandingly sharp editing. But throughout it is a far better examination of Ali and his global impact than Michael Mann's stultifying Ali.
The film begins with Ali's first defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, when Ali was still Cassius Clay. Klein's camera is there for the fight but it's also there before the fight, when almost everyone pegged Liston, the heavyweight champ, as the winner. Klein shows grocery shoppers, clerks, bartenders, kids, gamblers and all sorts of other people weighing in with their opinions. This sequence is almost transcendant in its democracy and it makes it seem as if the fight was the only thing being discussed anywhere.
Another stunning early scene introduces the syndicate, a group of Southern white businessmen who backed Ali early in his career and felt later that he wasn't sufficiently grateful for their financial support. Each member of the syndicate introduces himself in sober, almost confrontational terms, bragging about his assets. Some of the syndicate are also shown sitting around chatting about the good old days when their grand-parents owned slaves. A provocative sequence that cuts to the heart of patronage and the racial complexities of boxing.
When the film reaches the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle fight in Zaire between Ali and George Foreman it switches from the stunning black-and-white to color film stock. There are more great moments for audiences to discover here, like Ali skulking around outside Foreman's training session, making faces. Also, in one telling moment, Ali stages a knock-down during a sparring match. He then announces to all the reporters present that Foreman is the greatest boxer of all time, only to then reveal that he's been putting them on. His showmanship stands in stark contrast to the brooding gravity of the young Foreman, who hits the heavy bag so hard that he practically sends his trainer, attempting to hold it still for him, flying across the room.
The classic fight in Zaire, like most of the fighting in the film, is only presented in still photos but it is beautifully orchestrated with fight shots, voiceovers of Ali proclaiming his greatness and footage from training as well as footage of a tribal combat ritual. Even though Muhammed Ali: The Greatest is light on the actual matches the heart of boxing is still very much present.
Viewers interested in watching the Zaire fight itself have a couple of other options: The majestic documentary When We Were Kings and the HBO DVD Muhammad Ali - The Greatest Collection, which features unedited versions of both the Liston and Foreman fights. Those programs taken together with Klein's outstanding Muhammed Ali: The Greatest paint a vivid portrait of this proud, strange man.
The full-frame image comes from some pretty modest sources. Klein's footage was shot on the go under a diverse range of lighting situations. Still, there is beauty in his images and the clean, true transfer reflects that. The film is black-and-white until Zaire, at which point it becomes color. The color footage has the grainy look of seventies film stock but still looks fine for a documentary that seems to be everywhere at once.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is fine. The voices are all surprisingly clear given the sources and the noisy locations.
Klein provides commentary in a seperate section for certain scenes. These scenes are played in slow-motion while he discusses various aspects of the film, from Malcolm X's fascinating appearance to Ali's Zaire shenanigans. This is an interesting technique since sometimes he has more to say on a subject than there would be in a scene-by-scene commentary. A nice addition.
I also want to make a special mention of the menus on this disc. I normally don't review menus but the graphic design on this disc is so simple and beautiful that it immediately caught my eye. The simple white lettering on the black background (plus the red highlight) mimics the film's titles and reflects the barren style of boxing posters and ring cards. It points out how busy and ugly so many DVD menus are and is really an exquisite example of design.
Muhammed Ali: The Greatest may be the finest documentary on the legendary boxer. Minus glowing interviews and any historical perspective it simply jumps right into the moment and whisks the viewer along. Ali has always been a dynamic, brilliant showman and Klein's film does a great job of mixing his persona with the voices of his fans.