'Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Daphne Productions
Quite enjoyable, but not essential for those who know Ali's story.

Robert S. Bader's debut doc tells the story of Muhammad Ali's life with an emphasis on his long relationship with TV host Dick Cavett.

Somewhat misleadingly named, Robert S. Bader's Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes — though it does make good use of the interviews Dick Cavett did with Muhammad Ali over the years on his celebrated talk show — proves mostly to be just another portrait of the boxer, whose unmatchable charisma and fascinating story has already fueled many docs, from the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings to the more recent The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Though this debut film almost can't help but be enjoyable, viewers who already know the broad strokes of Ali's career will find themselves wishing they were simply watching the eponymous tapes themselves, augmented by nothing more than the fond memories Cavett offers on their relationship.

"Ali was always my friend, from the moment we met," Cavett tells Bader. But their lives crossed even before Cavett hosted Ali onscreen: Cavett was hired to write some comic poems for the boxer's appearance (when he was still named Cassius Clay) on The Jerry Lewis Show, and he remembers Clay delivering them flawlessly. As it opens, the doc finds the two bantering on the host's stage, demonstrating easy chemistry before the studio audience, Ali zinging Cavett and only rarely getting slyly zapped in return.

After a delightful short montage of these clips, though, the movie settles into conventional biography of Ali, zipping through his emergence as an Olympic star to his renunciation of the "slave name" Cassius Clay and embrace of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. Spending a good deal of time on this and its ramifications for the newly renamed Muhammad Ali's career, the doc largely duplicates the narrative of Bill Siegel's The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Here, some perspective on Ali's public statements comes from their airing on Cavett.

Al Sharpton says that while Cavett was "the whitest of white guys," he stood apart for giving black celebrities the opportunity to express themselves on their own terms. Even so, he wasn't a doormat: "I'm gonna talk for a second now," he tells Ali at one point, when the boxer seems to be reciting Nation of Islam talking points instead of engaging in conversation. Multiple sources here suggest the boxer's understanding of the "segregationist, racist" dogma he was spreading was not very deep. But he willingly paid a price for his beliefs, enduring a suspension from boxing because he refused to be inducted into military service.

The role of his Cavett Show appearances doesn't become important again in this story until the champ's rivalry with Joe Frazier, after he regained permission to fight professionally. Much of the trash-talk buildup to the fight happened on the show. But when their first bout in 1971 ended in a decision against Ali, he "lost with grace and class," sitting down with Cavett to modestly show his "uneven," banged-up face and admit he was bested.

We largely return to a generic recap of the fighter's late career, which stretched on longer than any of his fans thought it should. Talking now with Bader, Cavett muses on what it was like to see Ali fade in the ring, then battle with Parkinson's disease. Ending, naturally, with the deeply moving image of a shaking Ali lighting the torch for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the picture then goes from stirring to sappy, closing with Dylan's "Forever Young" over the credits.

Production companies: Cavalier Films, Daphne Productions, Minutehand Pictures
Director: Robert S. Bader
Screenwriters: Robert S. Bader, Dick Cavett
Producers: Robert S. Bader, Bay Dariz, Allan Falk
Director of photography: Dan Brockett
Editors: Robert S. Bader, Oliver Thompson
Composer: Oliver Thompson
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Sales: Noor Ahmed, Reder & Feig

94 minutes