Ali (2001)

Cynthia Fuchs

Ali embodies a kind of car-wreck charisma -- arrogant and self-conscious, beautiful and fierce, even on twenty-year-old tape, he can take your breath away. This ability to mesmerize makes Ali who he is, or more accurately, who everyone wants him to be. He's a cipher and a screen onto which viewers might project themselves.


Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson, Nona Gaye, Jada Pinkett Smith
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2001-12-25

Most likely, you've heard everything you need to hear about Muhammad Ali, especially recently, what with all the publicity for Michael Mann's Ali. Outrageous and outsized, he's one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, and surely one of the most incessantly documented and represented. As if to increase the noise level, over the Christmas holiday, ESPN found footage to make up 25 hours of programming, and then played it a few times, to form an incessant loop of Ali-ness. There you see him again and again -- in stills and archival fight footage -- mouthing off with Howard Cosell, boxing with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Sonny Liston, watching Billy Crystal do a decidedly strange compression of his life by acting out Ali and various contenders. It was a weird and wild (and lengthy) array of moments, yet somehow it was hard to look away. Ali embodies a kind of car-wreck charisma -- arrogant and self-conscious, beautiful and fierce, even on twenty-year-old tape, he can take your breath away.

This ability to mesmerize makes Ali who he is, or more accurately, who everyone wants him to be. He's a cipher and a screen onto which viewers might project themselves. Even now that he's been embraced by the mainstream, Ali's story is a rife with as much controversy as deference, and plenty of people still hold him in contempt for his loud resistance to the Vietnam war and his sometimes compromised allegiance to the Nation of Islam. So, the fact that Mann and Fresh-Prince-turned-mega-movie-star Will Smith even imagined bringing this story to the screen made headlines. How could they pretend to convey Ali's brilliance? How could a movie do justice to the complexity or the hugeness of the man?

For all the hype and all the expectations, Ali is unexpected. Knowledgeable, evocative, and occasionally excessive, the film jumps right into its big subject and bold concept and never looks back. It begins with a breathtaking sequence. Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, jogs in a hooded sweatshirt along a snowy city street, followed briefly by a cop car, from which a white officer asks, "What you runnin' from, son?" Clay keeps jogging, unbothered because he's so used to such careless cruelty, but you can't help but realize the pervasive whiteness of his world -- it begins t explain his drive. Intercut with this scene, dated 24 February 1964, are repeated shots of Sam Cooke on stage, singing an incredible medley over the cuts -- "Somebody Have Mercy," "It's All Right," "Bring It on Home to Me," and more -- the camera barely keeping up with him as fans swoon. Cut again, to lay on the speed bag, his face close, his punches rhythmic and rapid; cut to Sonny Liston beating Floyd Patterson; to the child Ali, watching his father, Cassius Clay, Sr. (Giancarlo Esposito), paint a white Jesus for a white church; to young Cassius stepping to the back of a bus, past a newspaper with a headline on the lynching of Emmett Till; to Clay grown, standing in the back of a Muslim meeting room, as Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) declares, "We don't teach you to turn the other cheek."

With these deft strokes, Ali begins to lay out (and admittedly, reduce) the many complex factors that made Muhammad Ali "the greatest" -- champion boxer, commercial goldmine, and man of conscience -- however troubled and erratic he was in any of these roles. Cooke continues to sing over shots of the young, magnificent Clay in the gym, watched over by his fast-talking cornerman Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx), friend and photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright), and trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), all intent on getting this kid, already an Olympic gold medallist, ready to take on Liston. Cut once more, as the song closes, to the Clay-Liston weigh-in, as Ali advises the champ that he is going to "fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee." So insistent, so confident, so fantastic, Clay was already a self-aggrandizing loudmouth, offending old-school sportswriters with his lack of "respect." Rumble young man rumble.

Exciting and nervy, this first set of images, at once urgent and impressionistic, stands as a kind of fair warning. This movie will be no standard biopic. It won't give you a series of facts, it won't show you how Ali came to be, it won't explain or even "represent" him in any usual way. Selecting a particular time period -- the tumultuous ten years between Clay/Ali's first heavyweight title triumph in '65 and his amazing "rope-a-dope" performance to recover that title in Zaire, during 1974's "Rumble in the Jungle" (thrillingly documented in Leon Gast's When We Were Kings) -- the film doesn't pretend to tell the "whole" story of the man or his times. Instead, it throws moments at you, a lot of them, almost all scored with period music (though the "inspired-by" soundtrack cd features popular new acts, including R. Kelly, Alicia Keys, and Moby) and all coming with a speed that makes them imprecise. It presumes you can fill in blanks.

Just so, the film doesn't so much introduce characters as it lets them loose in mid-action: trainers, friends, and family members (Ali had five or six kids during this decade -- out of 9 total -- but the film barely acknowledges them) are more illustrative background elements than developed characters. Sometimes, this is a surprisingly effective strategy: Foxx as Bundini is especially scrappy and alive in the role, so that the smidgen of screen time he has turns electric. In other cases, as with Paul Rodriguez playing Ali's doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, there's nothing to be done but show up in the frame (perhaps, you think, his dialogue was lost in cutting).

Occasionally, Ali lapses into a more ordinary, episodic cadence, as it "reports" on events. He wins the title; he receives his Muslim name from Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall); he seduces and marries first wife Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith); Malcolm (Mario Van Peebles, in an underdeveloped role) and Martin (LeVar Burton, in this single moment, that is, no role) shake hands on a TV in the background of a shot where Ali is doing sit-ups in the foreground; Malcolm is assassinated; Ali is convicted of "refusing induction" ("Ain't no VC ever called me nigger"); his lawyer, Chauncy Eskridge (solid Joe Morton), represents him all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturns his conviction and grants him conscientious objector status; etc.

Still, despite this storytelling (call it "cramming") impulse, the film maintains a kind of audacious subjectivity. It's not that it takes Ali's point of view, exactly (though it's his more than anyone else's); it's more that it filters all this history, so well-known and yet so abstract, though a haze of riotous conscience. The movie makes clear that he adores himself, and also that he tramples all over many hearts, including the women he loves and leaves, including Sonji, Belinda (Nona Gaye), and Veronica (Michael Michele), and the friendship with Malcolm that he forsakes in order to keep tight with Elijah Muhammad (bad choice, the movie argues, as the Nation goes on to exploit Ali).

Of course, the boxing scenes -- brutal, up-close, and metaphorical too -- expose much of this internal turmoil as externalized and choreographed professional battling. Mann and DP Emmanuel Lubezki concoct a dazzling arrangement of wide and extremely tight shots, and used a mini handheld camera that allowed them to get in between fighters and create a grainy whoosh in the image. Also of course, the film doesn't really challenge boxing, as ideology, sport, or commercial/exploitative business, it also never lets you forget that Ali came to his greatness amidst entrenched racism. And this is the film's own bit of greatness, that it presents U.S. racism without apologizing, explaining, or looking away from this legacy. It's ugly.

As for the seeming Ali-ness attained by Ali -- it's a mixed bag. Smith really trained, boxed, and studied Islam, yes yes, and he abstained from sex with Jada. All that, no matter how true, has long since turned into marketing strategy, repeated for GQ and Jay Leno, playing the game much as Ali himself might have played it (though certainly not so vividly as he has). In the film, Smith is working hard in the role -- and god knows he owes us all for making The Legend of Bagger Vance. And if he never transforms himself into Ali, or what viewers want him to be, he achieves a poetically licensed otherness, and a truly strong performance. Perhaps most strikingly, Smith's most effective scenes, despite Ali's notorious verbal dexterity, involve no dialogue, just the camera (sometimes way too tight for regular comfort levels) on his face and utterly expressive body.

Though the film obviously reveres Ali, and omits many details, it also offers enough shading to allow you to imagine his emotional and ethical struggles (as well as his enormous ego). It probably helps if you know a little something about Muhammad Ali before you walk into the theater, for instance, that he is a devoted member of the Nation, that he knew and quarreled with Elijah Muhammad as well as Malcolm; struggled with the rush and privilege accompanying his celebrity; cheated on three of his four wives; felt exploited by managers and promoters, including Elijah's son Herbert Muhammad (Barry Shabaka Henley) and Don King (Mykelti Williamson); venerated his longtime friend Howard Cosell (well played by Jon Voight under a heap of makeup); and resisted the draft when he was reclassified 1-A in 1966, after he failed the aptitude test in 1964 and was declared by the government to have an IQ of 78.

Running about two and forty minutes, the movie makes room for these many parts of Ali's life by not dwelling on any of them. Instead, it grants glimpses, as in a brief hotel room scene, when second wife Belinda confronts him about his rather public affair with about-to-be-third wife, Veronica. Or as when Ali goes running in Kinshasa, Zaire, accompanied by passionate well-wishers. He comes upon a mural depicting his crazily superhuman stature, his reputation and his value for them, in that it envisions him fighting off Mubutu's oppressive regime much as he fights off George Foreman or giant bees with stingers.

So much of the movie is most focused on Ali's early, U.S.-based career, so this moment, as he suddenly sees outside himself, to how others might see him, galvanizes him, and not so indirectly, comments on the costs of U.S. self-importance. While the film ends, literally freezes, on his victorious Rumble, it never backs off its consideration of the era's politics -- the racism and jingoism, the classism and misogyny -- which are everywhere visible, in Ali's detractors but also in his own behaviors. Mann is a famously earnest filmmaker, and here again he leans on a few signature techniques to make his principled points, hugely foregrounded faces to denote contemplation or revelation, handheld camerawork to indicate chaos. But the film is finally larger than such devices and the emotional manipulations they might attempt. But more importantly, it is premised on its inability to contain Ali. The bravest thing Ali does is to gesture toward, wonder at, and celebrate Muhammad Ali, and then let go of him.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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