Muhammad and Larry(Team Marketing, 5.6.2010)
ESPN started rolling out its 30 for 30 documentary series last fall as a sort of extended birthday celebration, commemorating thirty years on the air. Subjects have ranged from the famous (Wayne Gretzky’s trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988) to the less famous (a group of academics and writers inventing fantasy baseball in a New York chicken restaurant in 1980) to the sad (college basketball star Hank Gathers dying of a heart attack on the court in front of his family in the middle of a playoff game). When I tell my movie buff friends about 30 for 30, most haven’t heard of it and they quickly lose interest as soon as the word "sports" is combined with the word "documentary." My buddies who watch sports, on the other hand, never miss an episode. The series is a strange cultural phenomenon, as sports fans are being treated to new films by legendary documentarians every couple weeks, while serious cinephiles miss the boat.
Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.) and Steve James (Hoop Dreams) are three of the filmmakers contributing episodes to the series. Kopple is currently completing The House of Steinbrenner -- about George Steinbrenner’s tumultuous and sometimes tragic thirty year ownership of the New York Yankees -- for a fall premiere. Steve James’ entry, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, chronicles the rise, fall and rise of divisive basketball star Allen Iverson. In particular, James focusses on Iverson’s unfair jailing as a teenager. This episode aired in April and it is now available on DVD.
Albert Maysles contribution to the series, Muhammad and Larry, is about Muhammad Ali’s ill-advised 1978 attempt to win an unprecedented fourth Heavyweight World championship by fighting a younger, faster, stronger Larry Holmes. Unlike most entries in the series, the historical footage in this film is shot by the director himself. Maysles shot the footage (with his late brother David on sound) in the summer and fall of 1978. The Maysles couldn’t find the funding to finish the film when it was shot, but 30 for 30’s producers offered Maysles the opportunity to update some of the interviews and put a fresh perspective on the emotions and moments captured thirty years earlier.
The opportunity to revisit the past makes for a better film than if the Maysles had found the funding to edit their work when the original footage was shot. I say this because the Maysles' greatest strength -- the tendency to let their films wander through loose narratives until amazing, surreal moments pop to the surface -- would have not served this specific story very well. By leaving the footage alone for a long time, then gathering fresh interviews with all of the key players (except, understandably, Ali himself), the film offers a specific context in which the tragedy of Ali's life since the fight can be understood. Maysles also lays out in great detail how this tragedy could have been avoided.
I especially loved the interviews with Ferdie Pacheco, the medical doctor who quit Ali's camp two years before the Holmes fight because no one would believe him when he saw that Ali was showing signs of serious neurological damage and was "punching himself into an early grave." Pacheco is frank about how egotistical Ali was when given advice and how stupid Ali's training camp was in taking the Holmes fight in the first place. As Pacheco explains, Ali's camp essentially gave the fight to Holmes before either man stepped into the ring. For six months leading up to the fight, they weakened Ali's kidneys with relentless, unecessary body shots in sparring sessions. They also put Ali on thyroid medication three weeks before the fight. They camp could have saved some time by shooting Ali in the neck with a horse tranquilizer as he entered the ring to face Holmes.
ESPN is taking its time premiering new episodes and will be thirty-two years old by the time the last episode airs in 2011. Given the level of withdrawal fans will experience when that last candle is put on the cake, ESPN should consider making two more entries -- to get the math right. 32 for 32? Just saying. -- Jason Woloski