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Memphis Flyer The Video Phile

By Dennis Freeland and Bruce VanWyngarden

NOVEMBER 24, 1997: 

**** When We Were Kings (1996, directed by Leon Gast) – It’s so easy to forget. I had forgotten how pretty Muhammad Ali was. It seems so long ago that his battle with Parkinson’s disease became public. All my memories of the champ are recent, where he is a little bloated, a little stiff, his voice slow and deliberate. I had forgotten how quick-witted Ali was. How athletic. How rebellious. He was the greatest, and I am thankful to Leon Gast for helping me remember.

When We Were Kings is ostensibly the story of “The Rumble in the Jungle” – the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Ali, the contender, and George Foreman, the champ. More accurately, it is a beautiful biography of the man who was once the most recognizable person on Earth.

I had forgotten that Muhammad Ali was such a rebel. When he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and was renouncing his “slave name” Cassius Clay, he was daring the establishment to challenge him. It did. Ali went to prison for refusal to enter the armed forces during the Vietnam war. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” Ali said.

When We Were Kings chronicles the greatest fight of Ali’s career. He was attempting to regain the heavyweight title that he had lost when he entered prison as a conscientious objector in 1967. He was facing George Foreman, a heavyweight who was younger and stronger than Ali. The fight was staged in Kinshasa, Zaire, after that country’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, put up $10 million for the two fighters to divide equally. (Ali shrugged off criticism of a poor Third World country spending that much on a boxing match. “Countries go to war to get their name on the map,” he observed. “And war costs a lot more than $10 million.”)

This documentary works on every level – as history, as biography, as a celebration of one of the most charismatic figures of the 20th century. With George Plimpton, Spike Lee, and Norman Mailer providing a ’90s perspective on an event which happened 22 years earlier, When We Were Kings has both a modern feel and a historic touch. It is interesting to see how the two main figures, Ali and Foreman, have changed. Then Ali was the glib care-free champion of the people and Foreman was the surly, uncooperative fighter that no one loved. Today Ali has trouble talking, while Foreman is the beloved grandfather of the sport.

Gast began pre-production work on When We Were Kings in 1973. It took him 23 years to finish it because he shot so much footage he couldn’t afford to have all the film developed. Luckily, music talent manager David Sonenberg came along and helped Gast finish the documentary, which last year won an Academy Award. With a soundtrack including James Brown, B.B. King, and Miriam Makeba (from a music festival which preceded the fight in Zaire) and a contemporary offering from the Fugees, this movie sounds as good as it looks.

“After putting the film together, I discovered something that stunned me,” said Sonenberg, the film’s executive producer. “Many of my young rap artists had no idea who Ali was. They knew he was a fighter but that was basically it. It became important to me to make a film that would reach a young black audience. The perfect way to do this would be to present Ali as he first appeared to me … ‘The Original Rapper.’” – Dennis Freeland

**** Harold and Maude (1972, directed by Hal Ashby) – So I’m in Midtown Video with my 17-year-old daughter looking for a mutually acceptable movie. I nix Dazed and Confused; she vetoes Fargo. I say, “How about Harold and Maude? It was my favorite movie in college.” She looks dubious. I say, “I was right about Bob Dylan, wasn’t I? Trust me.”

In point of fact, I wasn’t sure how Harold and Maude – with its oddball romance between a suicidal teenager and a 79-year-old free spirit – would play to a new generation. I wasn’t even sure how it would play to me after all these years. I shouldn’t have worried. From its opening scene (wherein Harold, played to moody perfection by Bud Cort, stages a mock hanging), to the final credits, Harold and Maude is still irresistible, a quirky coming-of-age film with surprises at every turn.

Harold is a wealthy, repressed, death-obsessed young man who goes to funerals for fun. His mother thinks he just needs to meet the right girl, and sets him up with a parade of potential dates. Harold prefers staged mock suicides to small talk. The dates flee in terror. Harold drives off in his converted hearse to another funeral.

At one of the funerals he meets Maude, a spunky septagenarian New Ager (indelibly played by veteran character actress Ruth Gordon). After the ceremony, Maude “borrows” a Volkswagen and drives Harold away, sweeping him into her life. Over the course of the next few days, Maude introduces Harold to petty larceny, pot, sex, art, love, and finally–the true nature of death. In the process Harold finally learns how to live.

Harold and Maude isn’t subtle, with its over-the-top, post-1960s sensibilities, but it somehow manages to both embrace and transcend its era. Director Ashby lavishes the film with gorgeous Northern California scenery, and the Cat Stevens songs that play over all the transition scenes are a perfect fit. Bottom line, this is still a smart, funny movie, well worth a rental, either to relive it, or to introduce it to a younger generation. It’s been my experience that they’ll appreciate it. All I hear around the house these days is Cat Stevens. – Bruce VanWyngarden

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