WHEN WE WERE KINGS (Gast, 1996)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 22, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long
You've probably heard some variant of the claim that movies are primarily made in the editing room. Orson Welles, for example, said, “(F)or my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is THE aspect.” You won't find many more illustrative examples of this maxim than the documentary “When We Were Kings” (1996).
Director Leon Gast was hired to shoot a documentary about Zaire 74, the music festival scheduled to accompany the massively hyped Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight fight between champion George Foreman and a scrappy little underdog named Muhammad Ali in Zaire (today The Democratic Republic of the Congo). The concert would feature an all-world lineup mostly headlined by African and African-American artists, including Miriam Makeba, James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, and many more.
A lineup like that couldn't possible miss, but when the Rumble was delayed because of a sparring injury suffered by Foreman, the show still had to go on, to a largely empty stadium since it was no longer attached to the biggest fight ever (free admission helped pack the stands on the final day, at least). After this major setback, Gast struggled to find funding to complete his project and hundreds of hours of footage would sit unused for many years.
In the late-1980s, Gast continued to shop his footage around and found a new booster in the form of lawyer and music manager David Sonenberg who became a producer on the new film-to-be. But was there really demand for a movie about the ill-starred Zaire 74, no matter how great the music was? Maybe, but in transferring and revisiting the old footage, Gast and Sonenberg (perhaps others were involved in the decision – I don't know) realized they were sitting on a trove of crackerjack material of Foreman and, especially, the photogenic and always media-available Ali, as they prepared to rumble. There would certainly be demand for a documentary about Muhammad Ali and the fight of the century.
Thus was born “When We Were Kings”, a documentary released twenty years after its main subject, which the filmmaker wasn't even directly pursuing at the time. It turned out to be a commercial hit and even an Oscar winner.
“When We Were Kings” still plays a bit like a concert film, and not because of the snippets of performances from James Brown, B.B. King, and others still in the movie. Ali, today described by some as the original rapper, entrances audiences of all kinds – groups of admiring children in Zaire, gaggles of giddy reporters, the filmmakers themselves – with his perfectly polished rhythms and cleverly scripted rhymes. “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait til I kick Foreman's behind.” And “(I) injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick.”
Ali doesn't just bust rhymes (or skulls), of course. The film poignantly evokes the thrill Ali gets from being in Africa – in one of the most memorable scenes, he can barely contain the pride and joy he feels when flying on a plane staffed entirely by a black crew. Fans from Zaire were every bit as proud of Ali, who arrived as a legend and left as a demi-god (I'm understating the matter here). It's actually tough not to feel bad for the young Foreman whose chief sin was not being Muhammad Ali, and thus being identified by many as the evil American imperialist. “Ali, bomaye!” the crowds chanted. “Ali, kill him!”
The fight itself only takes up a few minutes running time in the documentary, but it remains a mesmerizing spectacle today, even for those who can't stand boxing. Ali's winning rope-a-dope strategy has been much discussed, but watching it in action provides a reminder that the Greatest's plan relied on two keystones. Step One – letting Foreman tire himself out by throwing flurries of punches while Ali leaned against the ropes - makes perfect sense. However, Step Two involves Ali resting up and conserving his energy by letting George Foreman beat the hell out of him for several rounds. I guess it works if you're Muhammad Ali.
The film also incorporates some newly-shot interviews which consist primarily of way too much Norman Mailer, not nearly enough Spike Lee, and just the right amount of George Plimpton. Their retrospective views are useful (just about everyone thought Ali would lose, Plimpton feared he might be killed), but the stars of the documentary are Ali and the people of Zaire. They truly loved Ali and, at least judging from what we see on screen, Ali loved them. The film captures that dynamic quite touchingly, which makes this something more memorable than just another boxing documentary.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion, “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution... from a 35 mm interpositive and restored at Deluxe in Hollywood.” The 16 mm archival footage looks surprisingly sharp in this high-def transfer, at least as sharp as you could expect given the source material.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't called on to do much with most of the interviews and archival footage, but the film includes some brief snippets of great music from the Zaire 74 concert as well as the title song for the film. The lossless audio treats the music quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio.
The first extra on this Criterion release is a 1997 interview with director Leon Gast which only runs 4 minutes. The interview doesn't reveal much except the degree to which Ali was quite media savvy and helped set up some of those great “spontaneous” shots.
We also get a new 2019 interview (16 min.) with David Sonenberg, the producer who proved so pivotal in getting “When We Were Kings” made and released nearly two decades after Gast originally shot the footage. He speaks in detail about the unlikely and complicated process of converting an old concert movie into a fight documentary (though, of course, it's much more than that).
The star attraction in the Extras collection is “Soul Power” (2009, 92 min.), the concert movie also made from the footage shot in 1974. This film is directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte (one of the editors on “When We Were Kings”) and showcases numerous great acts from Miriam Makeba to James Brown and so much more. It's a real blast and further proof of the degree to which a film is made in the editing room, though of course it helps to have music superstars to work with in the first place.
The slim, fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer Kelefa Sanneh.
There's a whole subindustry of Muhammad Ali documentaries, but none are better than “When We Were Kings.” And if you already own it on DVD, there's still a good reason to upgrade in the form of the extra documentary “Soul Power.”