SXSW 18: ‘Ali and Cavett’ Is As Charming As Its Subject Matter

Credit: Daphne Productions

Dick Cavett’s talk show was a staple of American television in the 1970’s. He would have guests on from music, film, politics and art to discuss the big topics of the day. His show could go ostensibly anywhere and often did. The format was loose which could lead to dead air or questions that went nowhere. The show was a real look at celebrities talking, warts and all. If you ever have any time I would highly recommend checking out old episodes of ‘The Dick Cavett Show‘ on YouTube. It’s a great primer for the enjoyable new documentary about him that premiered this week at SXSW, ‘Ali & Cavett: the Tale of the Tapes’.

First off I must say that positioning Dick Cavett as the co-star of the film is, only slightly, misleading. The documentary is much more concerned with Muhammad Ali. Which makes sense, few public figures have every captured the world’s attention like the former three-time heavyweight champion. The film briefly touches on Ali’s early and later life, but its primary focus is on the champ from 1969-1975. Where Cavett does come in is through his television show. The frequent interviews he used to do with Ali are used to frame the story. The first thing that someone who isn’t incredibly familiar with this relationship will notice is that Muhammad Ali was on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ a lot. It’s honestly kind of an incredible way to break up the story and reduce talking heads. We don’t need someone to tell us about Muhammad Ali’s enrollment in the nation of Islam when we have footage of Ali telling Cavett how much Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X have meant to him. There are still talking heads present. They range from sports journalists to socio-political figures and they exist to provide commentary on Ali’s life during this triumphant and tumultuous time in his life.

Gramercy Pictures

‘Ali & Cavett’ really is an easily digestible treat and one that huge Muhammed Ali fans and those ignorant of his accomplishments will enjoy and learn from. The film is noticeably more interested in Ali as a political figure/potential pawn to the nation of Islam than it is in his sport accomplishments. It does a fair job of explaining the hype around his first fight with Joe Frazier, dubbed “The Fight of the Century”. But gives less attention to other giant fights in his career like “The Thrilla in Manilla” & “The Rumble in the Jungle”. To be fair to the film, they make the point that those fights didn’t have as much interest in them when they were happening compared to the first Frazier fight.

The film does a great job of taking you on the emotional journey of a man who was always seen as the villain until later in his life. He was the villain when he was young because of how he talked. When he got political, he became an even worse villain because the general pubic REALLY didn’t want to hear black people expressing impassioned extraordinary beliefs. The film makes you feel the heartbreak of watching Ali go for from 29-0 in the boxing ring and making his case as the greatest fighter of all time to losing his his title and the three (potentially) best years of his career due to a battle with U.S. government over Ali’s refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. Everyone from his former trainer to Rev. Al Sharpton help give you context, but even if they just let the man speak for himself in archival footage, the film would have been compelling enough.

My only real issue with the film goes back to beginning of this review and the title. There wasn’t as much Dick Cavett as i’d hoped for. Its less ‘Ali and Cavett’ and more ‘Ali presented by Cavett’. He is one of the most prominent interviewees in the film and gets to end the piece by giving a moving remembrance of a larger than life force whom he considered a close friend. I just wish the story of Cavett’s life had also been told, as I assume it’s an interesting one.

The film will come out soon enough, I would assume on HBO as it felt like a project that would be right at home on their network. It’s a solid entry in the growing library of Muhammed Ali docs and it shows that while he have a lot of material about the man. He presence was so big that, even today, there’s still room to add more voices to the conversation about him.

Keep Exploring
Review: Sun Choke