Netflix UK film review: I Am Ali
Variety of interviewees7
Children chanting “Float a butterfly..."8
Matthew Turner | On 26, Nov 2014
Director: Clare Lewins
Cast: Muhamad Ali, Hana Ali, Maryum Ali, Muhamad Ali Jnr, Rahaman Ali, Veronica Porche Ali, Jim Brown, George Foreman, Tom Jones, Mike Tyson
Watch I Am Ali online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Directed by Clare Lewins, I Am Ali is a documentary about the life and career of legendary boxer Muhamad Ali, told through archive footage and multiple interviews with his family, friends, opponents and colleagues. The result is both informative and entertaining, thanks to a strong focus on the personal angle that helps distinguish it from similar Ali docs, such as Facing Ali, The Trials of Muhamad Ali or Muhamad Ali: Through The Eyes of the World.
Structured via a series of chapters, with headings like “The Son’s Story” and “The Brother’s Story” (right down to the likes of, say, “The Driver’s Story”), the film uses a combination of archive footage, home movies and filmed interviews to explore the boxer’s life and career. This approach means that the film often unfolds in a less than chronological fashion, but it makes up for the occasional confusion with a wealth of personal detail and some enjoyably anecdote-heavy interviews. That said, the structure does backfire occasionally, simply because some of the chapters are so short: Ali’s brother Rahaman’s contribution, for example, is just a few sentences long.
Despite the erratic structure, the film still covers all the expected bases, such as Ali’s conversion to Islam, his decision to change his name, losing his title because he refused to go to Vietnam, his return to the ring and his diagnosis of Parkinson’s, as well as all his famous defeats and victories, such as the Rumble in the Jungle (the subject of When We Were Kings). The anecdotes are exceedingly good value. Highlights include: Tom Jones discussing the visit that led to a playful photo of him standing over Ali, as if he’d just floored him; and former art director George Lois recounting how difficult it was to get Ali to stand still for the famous 1968 Esquire cover picture depicting him as a martyred Saint Sebastian.
Unsurprisingly, given the strong family involvement in the project, the interviews are almost entirely laudatory, which means that the film veers perilously close to hagiography in places. That said, the personal focus allows for a wide variety of interesting perspectives, such as Muhamad Ali Jnr’s observations on how hard it was growing up at school with a father who was “The Greatest”.
The documentary also gets an extra boost from its use of telephone call recordings made by Ali himself (for both family and posterity, rather than out of Nixon-style paranoia). These turn out to be both charming and funny, whether it’s his obvious pride at his children reciting their ABCs down the phone to him, or his daughter exclaiming “But you’re old!” when he says that he’s contemplating coming out of retirement for a fourth heavyweight title attempt. The result is an enjoyable, informative and ultimately moving documentary that should appeal to fans and newcomers alike. Worth seeing.
I Am Ali is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.