Let Us Now Praise Filmmaker Leon Gast

‘When We Were Kings’ director Leon Gast passed at 84.

Director Leon Gast accepts the Directing Award for Documentary Film for ‘Smash His Camera’ at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival awards ceremony on Saturday, January 30, 2010 in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)

There are significant movies. Then, there are the rare, great films that claim one-of-a-kind production stories every bit as compelling and defining as the finished movie.

Some of these cinematic pairs come to mind quickly. Terry Gilliam‘s frequently delayed ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ and the documentary ‘Lost in La Mancha’ from co-directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Francis Ford Coppola‘s Vietnam War adventure ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.’ Film fans are lucky that there are documentaries to tell the believe-it-nor-not stories behind these timeless movies.

Earlier today, I’m reading the NYT remembrance story for documentary filmmaker Leon Gast, who passed at 84.

I know many film buffs had forgotten that Gast won a 1997 Best Documentary for his film ‘When We Were Kings,’ about the 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Then again, any brief description portraying ‘When We Were Kings’ as a sports documentary fails to capture the storytelling’s depth and scope.

Muhammad Ali is the star of the documentary ‘When We Were Kings.’ Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection.

‘When We Were Kings’ also tells the story of promoter Don King, who wanted to establish himself as a world-class producer with the “Rumble in the Jungle,” a boxing match, music festival, and cultural event based in Zaire.

‘When We Were Kings’ stands out as a political story, focusing on Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s commitment to the event and the growing Black Power movement surrounding the match.

Most of all, ‘When We Were Kings’ is about struggling heroes, in this case, Muhammad Ali, and his slim chance at overcoming the odds for beating Foreman.

I’ll never forget watching the restored film with an ecstatic audience at its 1996 Sundance Film Festival premiere. More importantly, I’ll never forget interviewing Ali and Gast in Louisville before the film’s national release.

Gast’s journey from production in 1974 to regaining access to footage and finally releasing a finished documentary in 1996 is a stranger than fiction story involving Cayman Islands shell companies, drug deals, and misplaced financing. It’s amazing to remember what Gast did to finish the movie with producer Taylor Hackford’s help.

There are other documentaries in Gast’s filmography, including ‘Smash His Camera,’ his excellent 2010 documentary about paparazzi photographer Ron Galella. Yet, like a one-hit-wonder pop act, Gast will always be remembered for ‘When We Were Kings.’ It’s a feature good enough to anchor an entire career.

Upon learning of Gast’s death, I hope for one more thing. I hope for a documentary about Gast’s perseverance finishing ‘When We Were Kings.’ That’s the last Leon Gast story ready to be told.

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