The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

The athlete as art, one more time: "Brown Butterfly" is a multimedia stage presentation that celebrates Muhammad Ali's life and times.
Three video screens show Ali in action, both in and out of the ring. Montages of his contemporaries in sports and popular culture show the audience that Ali was both a product and a shaper of his time. The only words you'll hear are Ali's words, mixed as samples, [composer Marlies] Yearby said. "So you'll hear Ali's voice, and sometimes you'll even hear his breathing."

Even the use of samples is something of a tribute to Ali, Yearby said. It was through Ali's vocal rhythms, his good-natured braggadocio and his improvised rhymes that mainstream America got its first taste of what would become hip-hop. Rapping and sampling was already, in Ali's heyday, popular among poor black kids but was seldom heard outside of urban basements.
Add this to the Czech Olympic hockey opera and "NASCAR Ballet", and call it a high art/sports hat trick. No more such examples, if there be any more, from me, for the near future at least.

My own perspective on Ali:

Looking back, he was my first recognizable sports figure, although hardly at all through sports. Growing up in the late '70s and early '80s, I remember Ali being everywhere on the media landscape: Magazines, advertisements, and (especially) television. By this time, his boxing career was largely over, but that didn't matter. He was doing commercials, guest starring on variety shows, and appearing on Wheaties boxes. He wasn't the first boxer, or athlete, to transcend the sports world into the greater entertainment arena, but he was probably one of the most skillful to do it. Thanks to that, whoever was the heavyweight belt wearer at that time was irrelevant, because Ali was the champ, period. Everyone in my schoolyard knew exactly who Muhammad Ali was, and you couldn't say that about any other athlete back then.

Probably as significantly: Not only did us kids know who Muhammad Ali was, we had never heard of Cassius Clay. By this time, the whole Muslim conversion and Army draft incident was ancient history, and my generation had no inkling about his past controversy. Not only that, but the very name "Muhammad Ali" didn't carry the defiant connotation that many people a decade earlier inferred; to us, it was just another name, his name. So in many ways, Ali found fame and admiration among us with a wholly clean slate.

Those early impressions left their mark. Today, I can see he's older and in sorry physical shape; but his face, his eyes, remind me so much of thirty years ago, and I feel almost like a kid again just by looking at him. Does that sound like hero worship? I wouldn't go that far, but undeniably, Muhammad Ali is a part of my personal history.