Few icons of 20th-century American culture were covered more extensively by the media than boxer Muhammad Ali, which poses both advantages and problems for anyone setting out to make a film about him. On the plus side, the amount of available footage is staggering, and the amount of compelling footage is even more impressive; Ali was one of the great show business orators of all time, and this, combined with his skill as an athlete and his principles as an activist, makes virtually all of the archival material related to his life and career fascinating.
Indeed, this is one of the reasons there have been so many documentaries devoted to Ali, most notably Leon Gast’s superb “When We Were Kings.” That 1996 account of the “Rumble in the Jungle” is perhaps the most noteworthy documentary about Ali, but it’s far from alone—there have been many other films and television specials devoted to the former Cassius Clay, and when you check out his IMDB page you get a list of nearly 150 titles in which he appears as himself.
Herein lies the challenge for director Clare Lewins and her 2014 documentary “I Am Ali,” a film that makes productive use of existing footage but doesn’t really say anything new about the legendary boxer. Whether or not that’s a problem probably depends on the individual viewer; for neophytes who know little or nothing about Ali, the movie is a terrific introductory overview, and at the other end of the spectrum, Ali completists will probably enjoy seeing all of the vintage clips again. Those who know the broad strokes of Ali’s life and career but aren’t particularly obsessed with him, on the other hand, will probably find the whole thing to be a bit superfluous and redundant. Lewins does bring something new to the table in the form of private recordings from Ali’s personal archives—he was an obsessive chronicler of his own life and the lives of his children, and the freshest material in the film consists of home movies and audiotapes of Ali interacting with his family. These personal documents aren’t particularly substantive, but they do provide perhaps the most intimate portrait of the sports icon ever put on film.
The overall arc of the story will be extremely familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Muhammad Ali, but it’s well told by Lewins. She expertly balances the material from Ali’s personal collection with archival news reports, boxing footage, and newly recorded interviews with Ali’s loved ones, colleagues, and admirers, resulting in a tight, entertaining narrative of The Greatest’s highs and lows. Ultimately the fawning tone—and the fact that Lewins is covering well-traveled ground—keeps the documentary from digging very deep, but as a superficial overview it’s skillfully made and slickly engaging.
The archival footage appears to have been digitally cleaned up and looks and sounds terrific, and cinematographer Stuart Luck’s new material is beautifully lit and composed. The whole thing is well served by the spectacularly vivid color reproduction on Universal’s flawless 1080p, DTS 5.1 transfer, which also provides a great showcase for the movie’s nicely curated period soundtrack.
The Blu-ray contains seventeen minutes of additional interview footage spread out across four brief featurettes focusing on different aspects of Ali’s personality, and there’s a five-minute documentary on the creation of the film’s score. Ultimately, these supplements and the film itself don’t really tell a new story—but the story they tell of the larger than life Ali is compelling enough to warrant retelling.