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Before He Was King

Aug. 11, 2008
Aug. 11, 2008

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Aug. 11, 2008

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Before He Was King

A documentary examines Ali's Miami years

By Rich O'Brien

IT MIGHT seem that the world needs another documentary on Muhammad Ali about as much as it needs another Will Ferrell sports comedy. Surely, every aspect of this most famous of athletes (most famous of humans, really) has been examined and worked over to the point of exhaustion, every image long ago downloaded into the collective memory. But in Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, producers Alan Tomlinson and Gaspar Gonàlez provide a surprisingly fresh take on an early chapter of the Ali saga—and in the process bring to life a lost era in one of America's most colorful and compelling cities.

This is an article from the Aug. 11, 2008 issue

The hourlong film, which premieres Aug. 11 on PBS and will be released on DVD the next day, covers the years Ali spent in Miami, from his professional debut in 1960 (when he was still known as Cassius Clay) through his refusal to be inducted into the Army in '66. It makes the case that Miami, with its vibrant mix of cultures at a particularly tumultuous time in American history, played a significant role in creating the Ali persona. As Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's longtime doctor and cornerman, puts it, "Cassius Clay was born in Louisville. Muhammad Ali was born in Miami."

Pacheco, along with trainer Angelo Dundee and a number of other old Miami hands, provide engaging memories throughout the film (less illuminating are the interviews with pontificating Ali biographers Thomas Hauser and David Remnick), and their voices bring the old days to life. Dundee still refers to Ali as "the kid." Pacheco recalls how the black community in Miami watched out for the young fighter they saw as their own, keeping him away from the fast life of the clubs and bars.

In the end, though, it is the photos and footage of the young Clay, especially outside of the ring, that is the most satisfying part of Made in Miami. We see him, wide-eyed with delight, behind the wheel of an immense Cadillac, rolling down the highway into Miami Beach, bicycling with neighborhood kids, clowning with the Beatles, then later mocking Sonny Liston, huddled in conversation with Malcolm X, facing down the draft board.

The effect, as the stage gets bigger and the stakes get higher, is of watching a young man grow up before our eyes. We all know what he became. This films helps show where he came from.

Listening to Baseball

IN THE 100 years since Take Me Out to the Ball Game was written, its status as the ultimate baseball song has never been seriously challenged. Which is sad but understandable: It must have become increasingly difficult to write a song about nine guys in matching polyester pants and shirts running in circles. Still, The Baseball Project has somehow made it look easy.

BP has some serious musical chops—it is led by Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 and Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate, and it features REM's Peter Buck on guitar. Its first album, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, a collection of 13 original baseball tunes, is fun but surprisingly unsilly, only rarely threatening to veer off into novelty song territory. Maybe that's because the guys also have some serious baseball chops; you must to dream up a song about hard-living Hall of Fame outfielder Ed Delahanty. The highlight, though, is Long Before My Time, a bittersweet meditation on Sandy Koufax (right). It never mentions the pitcher by name, so it could be about anyone who's been forced to give up something they love before they're ready to let go. The baseball-as-life metaphor is nothing new—but it's never been this catchy.

PHOTOHERB SCHARFMAN (KOUFAX)PHOTOYEP ROC RECORDS (CD COVER)PHOTO© BOB GOMEL (ALI AND MALCOLM X)X APPEAL Made in Miami depicts the young boxer's relationship with Malcolm X.PHOTOPARAMOUNT HOME ENTERTAINMENT/PBS HOME VIDEO (DVD COVER)