‘Muhammad Ali: The Greatest’ Lets the Lightning Lip Speak for Himself

A better, though longer, title for Passport Productions International’s Muhammad Ali: The Greatest is Everything You Might Want to Know about Muhammad Ali in 50 Minutes or Less. A chronicle of Ali’s life, the film packs a lot of information into a short time, but its quality suffers for its economy.

Voiceover narration by Carlos Larkin and a library of still shots march through the fighter’s youth, career, and retirement. The film touches on the usual events: the stolen bicycle, the Olympic medal, the conversion to Islam, the draft evasion, and, of course, the major fights. More personal details get glossed over – his four marriages and three divorces barely warrant passing mention. The prominent figures in Ali’s life, such as his brother or his trainer Angelo Dundee, get no mention at all.

But the highlights take on almost mythical proportions through the voiceover: “On January 17, 1942, an event occurred that changed the world.” (In other words, Muhammad Ali was born). The elevated rhetoric continues throughout the film, such as this gem: “Neither boy had any idea that this afternoon would change history.” (In other words, Ali’s new Schwinn was stolen, and he vowed to beat up whoever did it. A police officer guided the young fighter into the gym).

The film also tries to place Ali’s career in context with early 20th century boxing and race issues. In an early segment, the opening narration describes how boxing overcame the color barrier long before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but it then contradicts this statement with its focus on early greats, their achievements, and their public reception. Jack Johnson won the title in 1908, and his victory, combined with his flamboyance, caused public outrage. He was arrested on a bogus charge of transporting a woman over state lines for immoral purposes – the woman he was “transporting” was his wife! Later, Joe Louis emerges as the antithesis of Johnson, and better public opinion of him follows. He wins well and serves the army in World War II before retiring. The film purports Ali as a combination of these two men.

For all its efficiency the film fails to deliver much. It lacks talking head, no actual interviews with Ali, and minimal fight footage. Instead, it uses numerous stills, and the camera wanders around them, usually starting at the bottom and panning up. It also uses press clips, fight posters, brochures, and even a ticket stub. Sometimes these items are superimposed over a textured blue or gold background with the words “Muhammad Ali” at the top and “the Greatest” at the bottom – just in case you forget what you’re watching.

By accident or design, there is one thing the film does really well: It let the “Louisville Lip” speak for himself. Extensive footage of Ali talking to the press leaves nothing to the imagination as to how he got his nickname. He tells the press before his match with Sonny Liston:

If you like to lost your money
Then be a fool and bet on Sonny.
But if you want to have a good day,
Then put it on Clay.

The windy words were not wasted for Ali beat Liston twice, once in a six-round decision and once by knockout in the first round. Extensive excerpts of Ali’s college tour speeches also demonstrate his speaking ability, but uneven sound quality makes some of the clips difficult to understand. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest is not to be confused with a fiction film by the same title. The fiction one, directed by Tom Gries, stars Ali as himself and is based on the rosy autobiography by Ali with help from Herbert Muhammad and Richard Durham. This production includes a generous portion of the trailer, and a DVD extra is a featurette about Gries’s production.

Overall, this film sticks with the familiar conventions of the Muhammad Ali myth. It provides no new insight. It even talks about Ali and his great career, yet it never shows him boxing! This cut-and-dried film provides a great, quick overview, but for fans seeking better, try another film.

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