Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes is an HBO film from 2018 that has been included as part of the launch suite for Sky’s new Documentaries channel. When the news is so apocalyptic, I’d have thought the last thing viewers craved was more hard-hitting fact, but I’m sure the corporation has done its research.
The 90-minute film, directed by Robert S Bader, tells the story of Muhammad Ali’s public life through The Dick Cavett Show, a chat show on which the boxer appeared throughout his career and with whose host he had a genuine friendship. The documentary intersperses archive footage with contemporary interviews with historians, journalists and Cavett himself, who is still going, a sprightly 83-year-old.
As fresh angles on familiar stories go, it’s slight. The film presents Ali as he was seen to the public, rather than offer much in the way of new information. Cavett interviewed him more than a dozen times between 1969 to 1981, so we see the brash, bright-eyed superstar in his twenties, through his conversion to the Nation of Islam, his refusal to enlist, his triumphant return and his unfortunate final bouts, where it became clear his body was slowing down.
While The Tale of the Tapes doesn’t teach us much, it underlines Ali’s gift for entertaining. He was nearly as talented in front of a camera as he was in the ring, to the detriment of many of his opponents but especially Joe Frazier, who couldn’t compete with his rival’s wit and bombast. Ali understood the power of the media to amplify sporting achievement and make it seem to stand as a metaphor for something bigger. In Cavett he found a sparring partner who knew how to get the most out of him.
Although Cavett is a household name in America, to unfamiliar British viewers he emerges as almost as interesting a figure – in this film, anyway – as the boxer. He’s a crisp, clear interviewer with a distinctive voice and a tone that can switch from impish to interrogatory. Compared to the flam that passes for chat today, the conversations between Cavett and Ali are refreshingly thorough.
Our closest analogy is probably Michael Parkinson, and Parky even appears in one clip, but nobody on our screens fills that role today. Certainly it’s hard to imagine James Corden coming up with a summary on the sport as eloquent as Cavett’s:
“It’s easy to have conflicted feelings about boxing because obviously on a high level it’s an art, a marvellous athletic art,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s a brutal exploiting and murderous, crime-riddled game.”
The documentary finishes on an optimistic note, with Ali, his hands shaking from Parkinson’s, grasping the Olympic torch at Atlanta 1996 and holding it aloft. After Ali’s lifetime of fighting racism, religious discrimination and the American establishment, it seems like a moment of national healing. It’s hard to imagine a sportsman these days being allowed to have the same political impact as Ali. Social media and aggressive PRs would make it impossible. To judge by the events being reported from Minneapolis this week, the need for reconciliation and unity is as urgent as ever.