Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Leon Gast wanted to record the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the massively promoted heavyweight fight between taciturn juggernaut George Foreman and wisemouth champion Muhammad Ali. There was enough hype, artistry, and cultural oddness on its way to Zaire in that fall of 1974 to warrant documenting this extraordinary event.
But legal wrangles, political coups, investment foibles, and distribution snags made for a 22-year obstacle course between the filming and the release of When We Were Kings, and the result feels less like a transcript of the facts than an exotic, half-forgotten song of history from a parallel universe, a history so powerful and full of hope it seems to deny the reality that supplanted it. Nothing the camera shows remains as it was then; it’s as if our memories of such wonders have been wiped clean.
Gast’s documentary slips in and out of that time and this, unspooling faded, dated, very ’70s-looking footage around the modern reminiscences of George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, among others. The amiable boxing commentator and broad, beaming father of four little Georges bears no relation to the silent, apparently unstoppable powerhouse who would leave dents “the size of half a watermelon” in the sides of heavy punching bags, as Plimpton says, awed afresh. Zaire is still ruled by the despot Mobutu Sose Seko, but the horrors he perpetrates are no longer national secrets but international front-page news. Most significantly, Ali himself is ill and partly incapacitated, forgiven by a public machine that can find no further reason to shrink from an outspoken black superstar; the paternalistic daintiness with which his “comeback” has been treated is an expression of nothing more than white relief.
But in 1974, everyone was frightened of Ali, and fascinated by him, and rightly so. He had already irked the establishment back home by conscientiously objecting to the Vietnam War and by adopting the religion of what many saw as a militant black separatist movement, the Nation of Islam. He was beautiful, in demigod physical shape, and had a mouth that doubled as a perpetual-motion machine. He was one step ahead of the bedazzled coterie of (mostly white) reporters and fight fans who hung on his every colorful word; he gauged his effect on them faster than they could react. And every one of those people believed that Foreman would destroy him in the ring.
A sparring session cut Foreman above the eye, and the highly anticipated fight was delayed for six weeks, while the men trained in desolate gyms and monsoon season closed in on the tourists unequipped for the long, drenching season. Gast whiles away the delay filming the swirl of talent and publicitythe musical events featured James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, and Miriam Makeba; it was Don King who sold the fight to Mobututhat spun around the event. The flood of black American talent pouring into Africa as part of this spectacle made for a strange, uplifting sort of disconnect; the homegrown black pride movement was taking baby steps, and here was a real-life, if temporary, back-to-Africa experience. Without half trying, When We Were Kings touches on nearly every issue of importance surrounding the fight: its political and business aspects, its perception by black America and black Africa, its place between cultures, and, of course, its importance as sport.
You don’t have to know anything about boxing to enjoy the sporting aspect of When We Were Kings. The fairy-tale elegance of the matchup is in its simplicity: Foreman could hit really hard; Ali could move really fast. In range of a microphone or an unoccupied ear, Ali laid out his strategy”I’m gonna dance”noting that if Foreman wanted to hit him, he’d have to find him first. The international press wrung its hands silently in fear for the sassy hero.
It probably isn’t fair for reporters to place such heavy mental bets, but they were helpless in the face of Ali’s charisma. The people of Zaire were no less enchanted, shouts of “Ali bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”) followed the champion all over Kinshasha. In a press conference, Foreman displayed some of the courtliness he became known for in later life”I don’t think people should be saying that,” he sighed. “‘Kill him’; that’s not right.” But Foreman had deplaned with two German shepherds, the very breed used as police dogs to intimidate and attack the African populace. Foreman’s taciturn, forbidding presence did nothing to charm his hosts, while Ali made up his famous rhymes, goggled at the camera, and effortlessly demonstrated his prowess at every turn.
No wonder Plimpton and Mailer can still narrate every round of the fight with eidetic ease. There’s something unsavory about watching shapeless white folk dote upon the naturalistic genius of robust black athletes, especially ones who get publicly clobbered for entertainment, but Plimpton and Mailer have a real respect for and understanding of the sport, and they are incisive and enthusiastic in their reminiscences of the long Zairean stay.
But When We Were Kings belongs to Ali, as does history, and the title he won, and the title bestowed upon him by this film. He has since changed as much as anyone in this 89-minute document, but it is only American culture that has worsened. When We Were Kings isn’t just the record of one boxing match, it’s the laying out of a promiseabout race and heroism and the glory of sportthat has since gone woefully unfulfilled.
Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman is a fake documentary; its pretend-nonfictional framework providing an excuse to make a sweet, silly movie about a small town putting on a big show. Blaine, Mo., is celebrating its sesquicentennial, and fortunately for Blaine, the town happens to be home to a genuine theatrical talent of sorts. The flamboyant writer, director, choreographer, and songwriter Corky St. Clair (Guest), the talent behind the musical version of Backdraft, would love to document the town’s 150-year history in song and story, the town council would love him to, and the small pool of town, ahem, talent can’t ignore the siren song of the stage. With some unnamed documentarian’s cameras recording its progress, Red, White, and Blaine is on its way, possibly even to New York City.
Waiting for Guffman has only slightly more finesse than the show within it, and no less heart. Blaine may be a small town, but Guest doesn’t waste time laughing at it. The framework allows himand his actors, who improvise all the dialogueto present the story piecemeal, with the well-timed cuts and jumps that exaggerated disconnections and juxtapositions in the seminal mockumentary This Is Spi¬nal Tap, in which Guest co-starred and which provides Guffman’s blueprint.
Corky really wants to return to Broadway, although reports of his successes there are a little hazy, and he sees Red, White, and Blaine as his ticket back. He holds open auditions, pounds out the tunes, and strenuously works on the choreography in his colorful apartment (his wife, “Bonnie,” is always out of town; no one in Blaine has ever seen her, although Corky continues to buy all her clothes). The musical attracts Corky’s usual stars, an enthusiastic couple named Ron and Sheila (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), who own the local travel agency and have never been anywhere. There is a sour undertone to their relationship, hinted at in their bizarre audition piece, which finds the Taster’s Choice couple celebrating “Midnight at the Oasis,” and borne out by a disastrous dinner at which Sheila has way too much Chablis.
Rounding out the cast is Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), a dentist with stand-up aspirations, a trashy-but-naive Dairy Queen counter girl named Libby (Parker Posey), and a hunky garage mechanic (Matt Keeslar, the only thing worth looking at in The Stupids), whom Corky recruits personally. Finally, Corky visits a mouthbreathing retiree (Lewis Arquette) and convinces him to narrate the play. The youngish, excitable pharmacist Steve (Michael Hitchcock) explains that he was desperate to audition but the times clashed with inventory day at the pharmacy; with dewy eyes but a firm Susan Hayward lift to his chin, Steve insists that he had no choice but to bow to Corky’s whim. Steve, clearly, is only a couple of ticks away from a boom.
After parading his cast of friendly bizarros across the screen, Guest sits back and watches the musical come together. Always enjoyable and often hilarious, Guffman is much slighter than it needs to be. A halfhearted expression of interest on the part of a Broadway scout, name of Guffman, has Corky in a dither, but the possibility that this show may get picked up for a run on the Great White Way is never seriously considered, although it forms the premise of the movie. The cast members don’t have any real investment in Guffman’s visit, so their opening-night expectations seem misplaced. There is no conflict, friction, or counterpoint of any kind to the amiable storythe musical develops with no setbacks, and finally premieres minus one cast member but no worse for that.
Guest lets us watch almost all of the show, from the founding of Blaine by a pioneer who mistook Missouri for California to the town’s establishment as Stool Capital of the World, thanks to President McKinley, commemorated in the song “Stool Boom.” A UFO visit is explained with a tune titled “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars,” and by the end of the show Steve the pharmacist is sodden with love for Corky’s genius, Corky’s verve, and Corky himself. Guest’s performance is pitch-perfect; the small-town not-technically-homosexual with the big heart and enterprising way with Chinese silk is an easy target Guest never treats as less than human. Waiting for Guffman is a guaranteed good time during which you will learn absolutely nothing, and there’s no better definition of sheer entertainment than that.CP