Muhammed Ali was one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. Complex and principled, Ali was a world champion heavyweight boxer who regained his crown for a record-setting third time at the age of 36. He was a disciple of Malcolm X and a high profile convert to the Nation of Islam. For refusing to fight in Vietnam, he was stripped of his title at the prime of his career and banished from professional boxing for three years. And, rather incongruously, for forty years he was a good friend of Dick Cavett – a Nebraska born white comedian who helmed a wildly successful talk show beginning in the mid-1960s. Though a series of contemporary and historic interviews, director Robert Bader’s Ali and Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes provides an intimate look at this oddest of odd couples and in the process reveals some unexplored facets about both “The Greatest” and the nature of friendship.
Early on in Ali and Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, one of the talking heads in the films – of which there are many including sports commentator Howard Cosell, pugnacious author Norman Mailer, Ali’s long-time trainer Angelo Dundee, boxing legends Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, and Cavett himself – makes the point that Ali was the first boxer of the television age. With his larger than life persona and gift for linguistic sparring with opponents (aka “the dozens”), TV was the ideal medium for Ali. Similarly, Cavett knew a great guest when he saw one. Thus, it was a match made in heaven when, as a young champion, Ali first appeared on Cavett’s show. Perhaps unexpectedly, it was on Cavett where Ali – once the member of a religion that espoused black separatism and painted all whites as blue-eyed devils – found a platform that “gave blacks outside of the mainstream (like Ali) the chance to be heard and the chance to say what they wanted to say, unfiltered.”
“Provides an intimate look at this oddest of odd couples and reveals some unexplored facets about both ‘The Greatest’…”
Working from this thesis, the film recounts the many highs and lows of Ali’s life, punctuating this well know timeline with interviews on Cavett’s show. In one great segment, both Ali and the great heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier appear on Cavett’s show before their legendary third and final rematch – “The Thrilla in Manila” – and hoist Cavett into the air on live television. And in another revealing interview, after a brutal loss at the hands of Ken Norton, Ali – his broken jaw still wired shut from the match – waxes that Cavett is “my main man ‘cause you’re the only show that calls me on after I get whupped.”
It is these and other moments between Ali and Cavett – Cavett touring Ali’s sparse training camp in Pennsylvania countryside with the champion, Ali towering over Cavett in a mock sparring match, Cavett retelling a risque prank that Ali had played upon him, Cavett making an insightful and funny quip at a celebrity roast of Ali, and Ali and Cavett riding horses off into the distance – that the film truly shines and the genuine depth of their friendship is revealed.
“…TV was the ideal medium for Ali. Similarly, Cavett knew a great guest when he saw one.”
One only wishes that the filmmakers has concentrated less on recounting the well worn historical elements of Ali’s story and, instead, took a deeper dive into more fully exploring the sociological, racial, and historical implications of the Ali/Cavett relationship (as well as dialed down the volume of the mix of the soundtrack).
“There was a time in my life…when I thought he was my best friend,” reflects Cavett in a current day interview. “I would have liked to think we would have played together as kids. At times he seemed like a big brother to me.” At a time in our when the national dialogue on race has become so fraught and raw, Ali and Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, provides a unique counterpoint of two men – seemingly different in so many ways – who found common ground and built a friendship that endured the upheavals of the latter half of the 20th century.
Ali and Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes (2018) Directed by Robert S. Bader. Written by Robert S. Bader and Dick Cavett. Featuring Muhammed Ali, Dick Cavett, Joe Frazier, Al Sharpton, Jim Brown, Angelo Dundee, and Norman Mailer.
3 out of 5 stars