When We Were Kings
In 1974, Leon Gast traveled to Africa to film Zaire 74, a music festival planned to accompany an unprecedented sports spectacle: the Rumble in the Jungle, in which late-career underdog Muhammad Ali would contend with the younger powerhouse George Foreman for the boxing heavyweight championship title—“a fight between two blacks in a black nation, organized by blacks,” as a Kinshasa billboard put it. When the main event was delayed, extending Ali’s stay in Africa, Gast wound up amassing a treasure trove of footage, capturing the wildly charismatic athlete training for one of the toughest bouts of his career while basking in his role as black America’s proud ambassador to postcolonial Africa. Two decades in the making, When We Were Kings features interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton that illustrate the sensational impact of the fight, rounding out an Academy Award–winning portrait of Ali that captures his charm, grace, and defiance.
Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings receives its first home video release since Polygram’s long out-of-print DVD, receiving a new Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on this dual-layer disc and comes from a new 4K restoration, and scanned from a 35mm interpositive.
The film’s production history is a bit complicated and it’s something that should be taken into account when considering the final presentation. The project started as a document of the 1974 Zaire music festival, though this fell apart when a fight the festival was scheduled around, the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, was postponed after Foreman was injured during training. Filmmaker Leon Gast decided to turn his focus toward the locals, along with Ali and Foreman, and he was stunned at some of the footage he was able to get. The concert documentary was dropped (next to no one showed up for it because of the fight delay) but Gast knew he had something in the material. It took him years to find financing, and then once he found financing, he had trouble putting a film together from the 400-hours of footage he had; it took years on top of that to get the edit he wanted. The lengthy, somewhat messy production history does show through a bit here, with the film being sourced from a wide variety of materials. It looks as though the Zaire footage was filmed on various 16mm film stocks, and the film also has to go to a video source for the central match between Ali and Foreman (with tracking issues present). There are then newer interviews, filmed in the 90’s (with the likes of Norman Mailer, Spike Lee, George Plimpton, Malik Bowens, and Thomas Hauser), also looking to be filmed on 16mm, and then archival footage is thrown in there, some of it pretty rough. The materials all vary in quality, sometimes featuring a few marks and stains, while other moments are near-pristine (and then there’s the video footage that just simply looks like video footage). Archival footage can be littered with damage (not surprising) whereas the newer material, shot for the film, comes off looking very clean, though some fluctuations and faint tram lines can show.
All things considered, the source materials look pretty spectacular, a lot better than how I recall the original non-anamorphic Polygram DVD looked (though keep in mind I watched that DVD back in 1999 or so). At its worst it really is just some minor, infrequent marks, or a tracking issue with the video footage that is just a blip. The best aspect of this release is the actual digital presentation, which manages to deliver a very film-like look when dealing with film footage. The newer interview footage looks best: it’s grainy but it looks natural, and I was surprised by how gorgeously saturated the colours are, especially since it’s really nothing more than talking-heads footage. The video sourced material simply is what it is.
The 16mm footage from Zaire, all filmed in ’74, also looks impressive, though isn’t as sharp as the newer material, details varying from shot to shot. It’s very grainy (with the level of grain varying from shot to shot as well), but it looks like film. The grain is rendered cleanly, noise is non-existent, and when the source allows for it the level of detail can be surprising (Don King’s hair looks great!) Black levels are excellent, looking deep and inky, with only a handful of shots presenting some crush (though I blame this on the original photography). Archival footage can look rough itself, but the encode doesn’t add any issues.
Considering how the film was constructed I admit I wasn’t sure how this would come off but I think it looks pretty spectacular. It’s been cleaned up wonderfully and the encode is sharp, making the long wait for a new edition well worth it.
Criterion presents the film with a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.0 surround track. Considering the documentary nature of the film it was expected most of the audio would be focused to the front center speaker most of the time, yet the track does find appropriate moments to take advantage of the surround set-up. Sequences with music—usually from the concert—spread the audio between speakers (with the closing “When We Were Kings” montage coming across the most dynamic), and the fight scene works to put you in the middle of it. The fight scene also targets specific sound effects to specific speakers, so you get some moments where sounds are jumping about.
The film doesn’t really call for it but there is some creativity to the mix that is delivered exceptionally well on this release.
The release feels a little slim, especially when one considers the history of the film and the event it captures, though this disc at least has one very cool addition that sort of makes up for it. Things don’t start off too impressively, though, with Criterion porting over a 4-minute interview with Leon Gast that was originally recorded for Polygram’s LaserDisc, which would be carried over to the DVD once the distributor started releasing them. It’s short and was probably an afterthought but I was impressed with what material was packed in here, Gast explaining quickly how he came to find himself in Zaire, how helpful Ali was (after initially warning him to stay out of his way), and the long journey to getting the film finished, released, and distributed.
That ends up being a decent primer but a better addition is Criterion’s newer, 16-minute interview with the film’s producer, David Sonenberg. Sonenberg expands on the production history, explaining the difficulties Gast had in finding financing and then the difficulty in actually making a film out of what was shot. It did start out as a film about the festival, but it was realized during editing that the footage of Ali was a “treasure trove” and that changed direction. Sonenberg also explains three key versions/edits, with the first focusing on the festival’s coordinator, Stewart Levine (who does appear in the finished film), the second being exclusively about Ali, and the third being the one we have now, which focused on Ali and the fight, but broadened its scope out to political and racial topics that Ali talks about throughout.
The film’s supplements closes off with the trailer, though looks to be sourced from video (probably what played on VHS before the main feature). Left at that this would prove to be an incredibly underwhelming edition for the film, though thankfully Criterion does step things up quite a bit.
As a rather large bonus Criterion has also included Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte’s Soul Power, the 2008 film about the ’74 Zaire festival, which incorporated mostly unused footage filmed for what would become When We Were Kings. A director’s note included with the film has Kusama-Hinte explain how he was looking to build something from the footage, but not create another When We Were Kings, so the focus ended up being on the festival and the music. Ali and the fight make their way in here, as does more footage of the country and its people, but at the center of the film is the actual concert. Unfortunately very little from the concert appears here, maybe only taking up a quarter of the film, with most everything else focusing on preparation. It’s possible that since the concert was more-or-less abandoned there wasn’t a lot of worthwhile footage that could be used, maybe even most of it being mediocre. At the very least, since we only got a sampling of material around the concert in When We Were Kings, it’s wonderful to get a more focused look.
The inclusion of the film is a substantial one and I am a bit surprised Criterion didn’t feel it was worthwhile to release the film in its own edition, especially since they have licensed it from Sony. Getting two films focused on the same event certainly adds value, and I would say it’s a big selling point. Still, one drawback here is that getting the film as a supplement seems to mean Criterion doesn’t feel the need to include any supplements around the film, and there are plenty of existing ones. Sony had previously released the film in North America and it featured a commentary track and deleted scenes, while Eureka’s “Masters of Cinema” line released it in the UK (and region free to boot!) featuring an interview with the director, deleted material, a thick booklet, and more. None of that sadly makes it onto here.
Where Criterion may win out is through the actual presentation, though marginally. I haven’t seen the Sony presentation, but Criterion’s is markedly better than the Eureka edition. The masters do look to be the same (and I wouldn’t be surprised to find Sony used the same one as well), presenting similar colours and black levels, same level of details, and so on. Where they differ is in compression. Grain looks a bit noisy in both presentations, kind of blocky and digital, but Eureka’s edition also presents some minor compression artifacts. Criterion’s cleans this up quite a bit and compression isn’t an issue. Unfortunately Criterion opts to deliver the audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, whereas the Eureka edition presented it in TrueHD 5.1. But, even then, the sound quality is still solid.
Things then close off with an insert featuring an essay by journalist Kelefa Sanneth about the film and that actual festival (with mention of Soul Power). That essay ends up filling in the academic angle decently enough, but the lack of much else for either film is still disappointing. The inclusion of Soul Power does save the supplements from being a complete bust.
(October 10th, 2019: I also just noticed that Criterion had originally listed an interview with Taylor Hackford but it is inexplicably missing and is not listed on the packaging.)
I would have expected more supplementary material for the film but Criterion’s adding of Soul Power is a pretty big addition. Outside of that, at the very least, the video presentation for When We Were Kings is outstanding and a much needed upgrade over the discontinued non-anamorphic Polygram DVD.