CRAWFORD | New Ali documentary brings back his old voice - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | New Ali documentary brings back his old voice

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Photo courtesy of Focus Features. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Early in Clare Lewins' new documentary on Muhammad Ali, "I Am Ali," the star appears -- Ali's voice, on the telephone with his young daughter Maryum, telling her that he is on his way to look at a training camp location for another fight.

"Oh no, Daddy," says the girl's voice. "You're so old."

They're the same words most people around Ali were saying two years before his final fight, when the signs of Parkinson's Disease already were beginning to show.

But to hear them in this intimate setting, in this conversation between father and daughter, gives them a new poignance.

That's the triumph of Lewins' film, which opens on Friday in Louisville and other select cities around the nation. It doesn't break a great deal of new ground. But the presence of audio recordings never heard outside of the Ali family give it an intimacy that makes it worthwhile.

Ali's daughter Hana came across the tapes when she was living with her father eight years ago, and he told her then that he had made them for the children, and wanted to share them.

"When I heard them," Hana Ali said, "it was like I was shuffling through a pile of gold."

Lewins had already been working on a documentary of Ali when she met Hana at the fighter's 70th birthday party in Las Vegas in 2012. That's when she heard some of the recordings, from a video that Hana had brought to play for her dad. She knew at that time that she had to have them.

"It took me about a year of getting to know her to help her to trust me to use some of the tapes, and it's that that provides the narrative through the film," said Lewins, who has established a strong reputation in profiles of celebrity subjects for the BBC. "She told him, Daddy, you know Clare wants to make this film and she'd like to use these audio clips. And he said, She is blessed, and the film is blessed, and she is like an angel sent from heaven. And he was absolutely delighted they were going to be used."

Hana, who is working on her own project involving the recordings, eventually consented because she said that Lewins seemed to have gained such insight into her father, through interviews with a variety of people who had personal encounters with him. These provide the bulk of the 111-minute film, but the 12 minutes of Ali's voice on audio tape provide the spark.

That Ali would make the tapes at all has been a wonder for his daughters, who talked about them during an interview with WDRB last week at the Waldorf Towers in New York.

"He's always been fascinated with history and time," said Maryum Ali, known as May May in the family, his eldest daughter. "He was a man who was documented from the time of Golden Gloves in Louisville, 'Tomorrow's Champions,' so he was able to see the trajectory of his life documented. He wanted to do that also. He wanted to do that with his children, his parents, his friends, conversations. Time was important. He would always say, 'Hana, May May, you'll be married one day, you're little kids now, and then I'll be old, and one day I'm going to die, and one day you're going to die.' And we were like, 'OK, Dad.' But he just always talked about time and history and it was so important."

Hana Ali said she's always had the feeling that her father knew he'd one day fall silent.

"He knew to do it, I think, not just for us, but for the world, because he says that in the recordings," she said. "It's for us, we have recordings where he's saying that, and then he has the recordings where he says, you know, this is for the world, too. He wanted to record his own legacy, what was going on behind the scenes. I always tell him, 'Daddy you created the world's first reality show, if you think about it.'"

Hana said that the full collection of recordings includes, "everything going on at the time, the phone ringing constantly off the hook, and everything that was going on in the world, the crises, the '79 hostage crisis and the government calling him to open the lines of communication with the hostages, him traveling the world talking to different celebrities, talking to his mother, his father, it's just a beautiful legacy that he left, with his voice, right at the time his voice was beginning to fade. It's amazing."

The movie includes a number of short segments from people who knew Ali. The most moving moments, perhaps, belong to Ali's brother Rahman, who appears wearing a Louisville Cardinals T-shirt and talks about their childhood, visits the home of their youth on Grand Avenue, and shares how he would throw rocks at his brother in the alley by the house, while his brother ducked them, to develop quickness.

"Back in the day when Muhammad and I were young kids, he would say Rudy, I can see it in the stars, God is talking to me," Rahman Ali says in the film. "He would tell me his destiny, how great he would be. And he said, 'I want you to be with me, I love you my brother.' He's a sweet, sweet, sweet person. . . . God blessed him with the insight to predict the future. I'm going to be the world's greatest boxer. I'm going to be a great man. And I will use it to help people. It's a wonderful, wonderful . .  ."

At the end of that, Rahman's voice trails off, and he is moved to tears.

I've seen the documentary twice. At a screening in Louisville attended by four journalists, and at another in Manhattan with a theater full of people. Rahman's scene elicited some audible exclamations from the crowd, sighs, or expressions of sympathy. It's not the only moment that drew a response from an audience.

At one point in the film, a British interviewer, referencing Ali losing his boxing license when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, effectively losing three years of his career in its prime, said, "You are happy to have thrown away perhaps the greatest sports career since the war."

Ali responded: "I haven't thrown it away. I haven't lost it. I'm going to say I turned it down. See the greatest sports title means nothing, mister, if you cannot be free. Boys in Vietnam are throwing away you may say their lives. I haven't did that much. I'm still living. They are dying today to free somebody they don't know. So what in the hell is a heavyweight title, and a few stinky dollar bills, for my people's freedom."

At the end of that, there was applause. You don't hear that at every documentary. Nor do you often hear that passion today in public discourse.

Ali's longtime business manager and close friend Gene Kilroy was instrumental in Lewins' gaining the access to many of her interview subjects, from Jim Brown to Mike Tyson to Angelo Dundee to George Foreman and Marvis Frazier, the son of Joe Frazier, who himself movingly talked of the differences between Ali and his father.

Esquire photographer Carl Fisher and art director George Lois share an interesting segment from the shoot of Ali's iconic 1968 Esquire cover photo.

Kilroy provides a kind of narrative thread throughout the film himself.

When I spoke with him in New York last week he greeted me with the words, "Louisville? It's a shame about Jimmy Ellis."

We got onto the topic of the world today, with all of its crises, and he agreed, Ali's voice in the conversation would add value.

"He was received by kings, queens, presidents," Kilroy said. "Everybody loved him because he had that innocence of boyhood but still had the dignity of man. He wasn't a politician, he was just a real person."

Kilroy said, for him, watching the film was an emotional experience.

"It brings back a lot of memories," he said. "But it's not the destination, it's the journey. We had a great journey. A lot of laughs, a lot of tears, a lot of ups and downs. And I thank God today we're still alive and we can still relate to people. It's nice talking about him and giving the stories out that no one could ever know. At one time, I was like the closest person to him. Everybody said you were lucky to be there. Yeah, I am. But he accepted me as a friend and allowed me to be his friend. The honor was mine. Louisville will always have a place in my heart. I'll always remember when they named the street for him down there and he said, 'Can you imagine, 'Muhammad Ali Boulevard?' And then they told us, everybody keeps stealing the signs and taking them home to their house, so he said, 'Can I have one?' And they gave him one."

The first appearance of Ali's voice in the film is not one you might expect of a heavyweight champion. It's a squeaky, falsetto voice he uses as he answers questions from a panel in the 1965 television program, "What's My Line?" Lewins chooses this on purpose. The voices you're about to hear from Ali, it suggests, are not voices you've heard before. You're about to hear him in a new way.

Missing is much mention of Ali's condition today. An ex-wife, Veronica Porsche, brings it up in her interview, but only briefly. In some ways, his years of dealing with Parkinson's are their own story.

I asked his daughters if they missed his voice. They told me that the world doesn't always see Ali at his best today. Generally he appears at events late in the day, when he's less alert and more tired. But early in the mornings, they say, he's still there.

Their discussion after I asked that question gives some insight into Ali's condition now:

MAY MAY: You know what, we miss his voice, but my father is so spiritually present, I mean, when we're with him, we're not really worried about, Oh we want you to talk. We just love being with our dad. We hug him and kiss him and we respect him and cherish every moment. You know, I've done a lot of work in the Parkinson's community, I understand the disease, our family understands it, he's had it for 30 years. And my father says, this is the cards God dealt me. I had a beautiful life, I'm not in pain, so we don't have regrets in this, we're just happy he is the man who he is, the history he provided for us, for the world, and we don't harp on old stuff.

HANA: Yeah, there's different stages in life. But his voice is not completely gone. The world doesn't hear it, but mornings, I call my father, and you'd be surprised. As the day progresses, and this is more or less the way Parkinson's works, in the morning he's renewed, and you can hear him clearly. He talks just like this (soft voice) 'How you doing? What's going on?' You can hear him. So, it's beautiful, every morning I'll call him, and maybe three mornings a week I'll reach him, and give him updates of what's going on. So my father, you know, even when we go visit him and stay the weekend or whatever, we're up early, so we know we can get those first few hours, where he's fresh and alert.

MAY MAY: So we still have him. You may see clips and news footage and think he's just out of it. No he's not. He's aware.

Hana Ali said she's looking forward to people seeing this side of her father.

"Clare did this film, it's like my father did the film, because he made the recordings to be shared," she said. "You feel like he's telling his own story, because he is telling his story. She's just doing it in a way that he would be so proud of, because she touched the spirit of who he is."

With someone of Ali's magnitude, who has made a difference in so many ways, it's tough to draw a complete picture. It's like looking at the moon -- you only see one side, but the entirety often is too much to capture. Rare is the opportunity to walk all the way around. Orbiting a man who is perhaps the most luminous personality of the 20th century is no easy task.

Lewins attempts that trip. For an overall picture of the man, it's a respectable effort, for those who know his story, and particularly for those who don't. There are several types of films: those you don't like, those you enjoy, and those you want to show others. This one, for me, is the latter.

The film opens Friday at the Village 8 Theaters in Louisville. It also may be purchased On Demand through cable and satellite carriers and via iTunes.

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