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Up close and personal: 'I Am Ali' shows champ's private life

New documentary offers unprecedented access to boxer's family recordings

The new documentary I Am Ali begins with Muhammad Ali's last fight, against Trevor Berbick, and then takes us back in time to fill in the story from there. Through a mix of archival footage and contemporary interviews with friends, family, colleagues, and opponents, the film gives a moving, if not broad, portrait of the life of the famous boxer, charismatic star, and outspoken individualist.

We hear stories from his son and daughters, a wife, a fan, a manager — all of them totally in awe of the ever-surprising, seemingly inexhaustible humanity, internal strength, and spiritual resources of the three-time world heavyweight champion. The film vividly recounts some of his life's most famous episodes: the stolen bicycle that led to the boxing gym, the early fights, the triumph at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the quick rise to fame, the conversion to Islam, the name change, and so on. Though Ali himself is absent from the film as an interview subject, discussions with people who knew him, who were affected by his superhuman charisma, offer a ringside seat to the life and personality (fighting itself recedes somewhat to the background).

Filmmaker Clare Lewins was given unprecedented access to Ali's personal archives of the recordings he made of conversations with his young children. The recordings are fascinating and touching, primarily for the profound love and encouragement that Ali evokes with even the simplest, everyday conversations: Hearing Ali called "daddy" will be new, even to longtime fans. But somehow, the tapes, which become a central part of the film's framework, are actually among the least interesting aspects of the movie, and Lewins seemingly tries to use them to salvage Ali's somewhat sullied reputation as a family man (it's a complicated task, as Ali has had four wives, engaged in alleged infidelities, and fathered a child out of wedlock).

Previous documentaries about Ali have sensibly scrutinized a crucial, fascinating episode in his life rather than try to capture everything: The splendid When We Were Kings from 1996 focused on the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" fight with George Foreman, and last year's thought-provoking The Trials of Muhammad Ali explored his conversion to Islam and then-controversial refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War.

Though the new film ostensibly sets out to focus on Ali's private life, what it conveys most eloquently is a sense of the ineffability of the man's greatness, his fearless struggle and triumph against the entire world. Ali's was an achievement centered on the boxing ring but extending far, far beyond it. Call it charisma, personal style, determination. Whatever the words, they tend to fall short, and this point the filmmakers understand quite well, giving us small glimpses into something enormous. Boxing was just something he did, a former manager aptly observes: Ali's true genius was self-creation.

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