Dick Cavett was buddies with world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali for nearly fifty years. Upon Ali's passing in 2016, Cavett relayed this anecdote to Rolling Stone, confessing to never quite understanding how he - a former stand-up comedian turned talk show host - had become "best friends" with the flamboyant boxer:
"I made breakfast for The Champ when he stayed at my house one night. I cooked up a big platter of ham, eggs and toast. I was going to divide that big mass for all of us, giving him the lion's share, of course. I left the room for a minute and came right back. It was all gone.
When he realized what he'd done he put on a hilarious, pitiful sad look and murmured, 'Oh, Dick. You never gonna invite me back.'"
In Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes - Robert S. Bader's documentary regarding the fourteen appearances Ali made on Cavett's show throughout his career (which carries a writing credit from the former late-night maestro) - we hear a lot of similar stories.
We hear about how Cavett first met the Champ while writing for The Jerry Lewis Show, where he penned a bit of slam poetry for the notoriously rhyming puncher to perform on the air. We hear about how Cavett would often have Ali on and let him say whatever he wanted, this seemingly straight-laced white guy giving a controversial black man a nationally televised platform from which he could broadcast any idea that popped into his head. We hear about Ali: The Comedian, so dexterous a personality that he could barely be contained. We hear about the time the Champ appeared on set with Joe Frazier before their infamous fight in ‘74, where the two practically sparred with each other at the drop of a hat (Cavett near helplessly caught between the fighters).
The only thing is: if you're a fan of Muhammad Ali or Dick Cavett (or just American pop history in general), then almost all of these remembrances are going to sound pretty familiar. While there's always value to hearing the tried and true tales of stardom during the Civil Rights Movement, the simple fact is that Bader barely collects enough interview subjects to qualify Ali & Cavett as a "talking head" work.
Cavett appears (of course), along with Reverend Al Sharpton and a handful of biographers, but none of the subjects really provide any sort of new insight into Ali's struggles with fame, converting from Cassius Clay when he discovered the Nation of Islam, and then how his subsequent falling out with that religious organization - which the host always believed was using the Champ as nothing more than a mouthpiece - led to a rebirth of the fighter’s individuality. If you've seen Michael Mann's Ali or Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, this is all going to seem woefully rudimentary.
Of course, had Bader applied some sort of interesting formal approach to the material, we'd be seeing it repackaged in a whole new cinematic light. Unfortunately, Ali & Cavett is little more than a series of interviews, spliced together with archival footage acting as the sinew. Revisiting the Champ and Cavett's numerous meetings will again flow over fans of the period/fighter/comedian like a warm blanket, yet that comfort just isn't enough to justify ninety minutes of one’s time, especially when this old information is presented in a fashion that would probably bore your eleventh-grade social studies teacher.
It's a crying shame, as given the current political climate, a well-constructed study of two individuals forming a bond that transcends both race, class and even its own time period could've been a vital shot in the arm. Instead, Ali & Cavett will more than likely be forgotten by many who view it, as Bader and Cavett do very little to try and brand what's already an incredible human interest story on the brains of audience members.
Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tape will continue to screen at SXSW Monday, March 12th, at the Alamo Ritz (10:30 PM), and Thursday, March 15th, at the ZACH Theatre (11:00 AM).