“This is no Hollywood set. This is real. Hollywood comes in and takes these scenes and sets them up, have somebody in the movie play his life.” The speaker is the late boxing trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown. The subject is Muhammad Ali. The time, September 1974. The place is Kinshasa, Zaire, the setting for the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” that pitted Ali against then-heavyweight-champion (and ostensibly invincible) George Foreman. The scene is from Leon Gast’s riveting documentary “When We Were Kings,” and as Brown so eloquently put it, this is real, and better than anything Hollywood could ever approximate.
Although much has been written about how this award-winning docu was 22 years in the making (due to a lack of completion funds), the lapse in time ironically pays off in the treatment of a subject that the filmmaker appears to know inside out. The intimacy with which Gast captures Ali, Foreman, and a remarkably charis-matic young Don King, who promoted the fight, is unprecedented.
Gast also folds in archival footage that places the event in historical con-text, along with sharply observed film from a three-day concert tied in to the fight that featured several top pan-African bands and a contingent of black artists from the U.S., James Brown among them.
Taylor Hackford, who produced with Gast and David Sonenberg, convinced the filmmaker to use interviews with some of the more notable fight attendees, includ-ing writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. “I had put together a piece and felt that it carried as well without interviews, coming from the school of verite and no talking heads,” says Gast. “But Taylor convinced me, and he was 100% right.”
The footage from Mailer and Plimpton is especially lucid, since both had writ-ten books about their experiences in Zaire. “Norman and George both read their books before the interviews, which is why they were so right on with all the facts,” says Gast.
With the combination of inspired editing and Gast’s determination to leave no stone unturned, “Kings” pulses with the Afro-American rhythms and black-power poli-tics of the time, and is lit up by the magnetism of Ali’s personality. “I think today, with the outrageous amount of money that athletes make and they way they sell themselves all over the media, that there’s an absolute purity about the kind of person Ali was,” says Gast. In one scene, the naturally paternal Ali warns of the dangers of drug abuse while telling kids “we must whip Mr. Tooth Decay.”
A key element is the contrast between Ali and Foreman. Ali, a natural showman and impromptu poet (“We’re gonna get it on ’cause we don’t get along”), warmed to his surroundings in a way Foreman found difficult. (Foreman is seen arriving in Zaire with his pet German shepherd, which offended Africans, since the Belgians had used shepherds as police dogs.)
Ironically, much of the extensive footage of Ali and Foreman wouldn’t have been possible if Forman hadn’t cut his eye in training, postponing the fight for six weeks and giving the film crew little to do other than follow Ali around, which the media-savvy fighter was all too happy to accommodate.
Prior to completing “When We Were Kings,” Gast, whose directorial credits in-clude “Hells Angels Forever” and “The Dead,” worked with Oscar-winning documentar-ian Barbara Kopple on a film about Woodstock ’94, designed to be part music chroni-cle and part profile of so-called Generation Xers. However, Propaganda Films pulled out after sinking $2 million into the project, according to Gast, and the film is in production limbo (neither Propaganda nor Gramercy, which was set to distribute, would comment ).
Meanwhile, “When We Were Kings” which won best docu honors from several crit-ics groups is scheduled to open wide Feb. 14, with a gala premiere set for Radio City Music Hall on Feb. 11. Since the film showed at last year’s Sundance, Gast has weighed offers to break into narrative features. “I feel so comfortable with what I’m doing that to switch over (from documentaries) at this point, I don’t think would be the right move to make. There are three or four more documentaries I’d like to do first.”
The first of those will be about boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, whose style Ali mimicked and whose mastery of “the sweet science” inspired the phrase “the best fighter pound for pound.”
Gast’s advice to aspiring documentarians? “For anybody doing anything, persis-tence, just persistence.” This from a man who personifies the term.