The title is just a tad misleading. While “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes” does indeed pivot on the 50-plus-year friendship between legendary heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and erudite TV talk-show icon Dick Cavett, both director Robert S. Bader and Cavett himself — frequent collaborators who co-wrote the film — always make it very clear who is the real star here, and who is no more (but, on the other hand, no less) than an affectionate admirer in his orbit.
And talk about great timing: Equal parts nostalgic tribute, even-handed biography and compelling sociopolitical history lesson, this brisk yet substantial documentary about the would-famous fighter who arguably fought his most important battle outside the ring, seems especially relevant at a time when many NFL players are angrily condemned (by, among others, the president of the United States) for far less risky acts of defiance.
Ali guested more than a dozen times on Cavett’s broadcast TV chat shows, starting with a 1968 appearance booked less than a year after he had been stripped of his heavyweight boxing title for refusing, as a conscientious objector, to be inducted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. During this and several subsequent televised conversations with Cavett, Ali spoke openly and disparagingly about race relations in America — which did not go unnoticed by African-American viewers such as Rev. Al Sharpton, who looms large among the interview subjects filmed for this documentary.
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Ali “would say things to Cavett about whites that you’d hear on the street corners in Harlem,” Sharpton marvels, adding: “Dick Cavett was the whitest of white guys in America. But he gave blacks that had been considered outside of the mainstream — like Ali — a chance to be heard, and a chance to say what they wanted to say unfiltered. Which was rare.”
For his own part, Ali appears to have fully enjoyed his many encounters on and off the air with Cavett. In the movie’s most hilarious scene, he and Joe Frazier mock-ferociously lift the diminutive talk show host and wield him like a wishbone. But Ali also sounds unabashedly grateful when he claims on camera that Cavett was the only TV star who invited him to be a guest after Ali lost fights.
Of course, Ali started speaking his mind — freely and flamboyantly — long before he arrived in Cavett’s green room. In one of the numerous well-chosen archival clips director Bader artfully entwines with fresh interviews, Ali recalls wearing the gold medal for boxing he had just won at the 1960 Olympics, but still being refused service at a whites-only cafe in his native Louisville, Ky. We also see him during a press conference in the wake of his 1964 upset victory over Sonny Liston, after he joined the Nation of Islam and renamed himself Muhammad Ali. He quickly and pointedly corrects any reporter who addresses him by his birth name of Cassius Clay.
“Ali & Cavett” focuses intently, and not uncritically, on that period in the 1960s and early 1970s when Ali was a devoted disciple of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, a close friend of Malcolm X, and a proselytizer for racial separation policies that, in at least one of his speeches excerpted here, made him sound as repulsed by miscegenation as any garden-variety white supremacist. Cavett recalls at the time worrying whether his friend was “being mouthpieced” and sportswriter Larry Merchant opines that the Nation of Islam valued Ali and his fame pretty much the same way Scientologists view Tom Cruise and John Travolta: “Those are great gets,” he says.
But even as Ali courted controversy most aggressively, being labeled a “draft dodger” and “segregationist,” he remained an enormously popular, even beloved public figure — a fact he proudly celebrates here during a classic “Dick Cavett Show” clip in which he casually drops the N-Bomb while describing his appeal to both rednecks and Black Panthers. Years earlier, the documentary details, Ali noticed that professional wrestler Gorgeous George made millions with a shtick that entailed roaring and bragging and strutting his way through the role of bad guy. It’s easy to draw a straight line from that kind of self promotion to Ali’s trademark boasting: “I am the greatest! I am the prettiest!”
“Ali & Cavett” likely wouldn’t qualify as anyone’s idea of a warts-and-all portrait. But the documentary does indirectly question the full sincerity of Ali’s religious convictions — Elijah Muhammad himself complained that Ali “decided to go with the white man” after the 1971 Supreme Court ruling that allowed him to avoid prison and return to the ring — and it bluntly bemoans the boxer’s insistence on continuing to accept high-profile (and higher-risk) bouts long after his decline from greatness was painfully apparent. The latter is only partly excusable, Ali biographer Thomas Hauser suggests, as the champ’s foredoomed effort to make up for lost time. Ali spent more than three of his prime years away from boxing during his legal battles. “Which is a little like knowing,” Hauser says, “there are three symphonies written by Beethoven that have been lost to time.”
An exaggeration? Maybe. But, then again, maybe not.
The undercurrent of melancholy that percolates throughout the first half of “Ali & Cavett” approaches flood tide during the final scenes that chart Ali’s declining health due to Parkinson’s disease (a malady doubtless triggered by his boxing-related brain injuries). But the documentary as a whole serves as testament to the undiminished joy Ali brought to Cavett and millions of other admirers for more than a half-century through sheer dint of his megawatt charisma. There were great boxers before him, to be sure, but, as biographer Randy Roberts says, “Ali was the first product of the television age.” He wasn’t just a heavyweight champ; he also played one, brilliantly, on a multitude of stages. Including the one where Dick Cavett served as his verbal sparring partner and corner man.