The absolute brilliance of Michael Mann’s ‘Ali’ biopic

Watching footage from Muhammad Ali’s memorial service on Friday, it was fascinating to see everyone in attendance. Religious leaders, famous athletes, celebrities, journalists, and even President Bill Clinton were all there to pay respect to a man who truly was The Greatest.

Seeing Will Smith there—he served as a pallbearer, along with Mike Tyson and others—unexpectedly made me feel a little emotional. Smith was masterful as the legendary boxer in Ali, Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic, and he earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. That movie taught me a lot about the pain and sacrifices Ali went through in his life to stand up for what he believed in. (I was still in high school in 2001, and I guess I just hadn’t learned enough about the boxer’s career until that point.)

Seeing Smith at the memorial service unexpectedly shook me up; I was thinking about Ali’s achievements, both in the ring and out, and about how I felt when I first saw Mann’s film in theaters. 

Saturday, I did the only thing that made sense: I watched Ali again. It was the first time I had seen it in probably about a decade or so, and it was still just as magnificent as ever.

If you’ve never seen Ali, it completely shatters the concept of the traditional biopic. This isn’t Ray or Walk the Line, folks; this is something much more experimental and brave.

Instead of going over the full film—which is available on HBO Go right now, by the way—I wanted to focus my praise on one specific element of Ali: its long, spectacular opening montage.

Mann revolves the whole nine-minute montage around a live performance by Sam Cooke (played by Dee Dee Warwick’s nephew, David Elliott). Cooke begins the show and works the crowd into a frenzy, even briefly taking one overjoyed audience member by the hand, as he sings one smash hit after another. It’s almost disorienting at first; did “I start watching a Sam Cooke biopic on accident?” first-time viewers may ask. “Is Cooke about to welcome Ali onstage or something?”

But Mann cuts in various moments from Ali’s life into the concert footage, and the director’s masterplan slowly reveals itself. Here’s a young Ali, being forced to move to the back of a bus because of the color of his skin; here’s an older Ali, running outside before sunrise; now he’s listening to a speech by Malcolm X; now he’s training in a gym.

These are all important pieces of the puzzle that is Muhammad Ali. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and Mann’s ability to pack so much into nine minutes of action is truly commendable.

The director’s other movies have been more hit and miss for me over the years, but Ali remains one of my favorite sports films of all time and by far my favorite non-baseball sports film of all time.

If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend you seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Bonus footage! Here’s Smith last year speaking about Muhammad Ali:

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