So once again we have survived.

Tyson (2009 Documentary)

tn_tysonWell, shit. Mike Tyson’s poor 4-year-old daughter died. I was already working on a couple of Mike Tyson-related reviews and I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to tie in with that terrible news. But he’s an interesting dude and these movies are worth discussing, so I’m gonna put them up anyway.

TYSON is a documentary about Mike Tyson. Actually, it’s an interview with Mike Tyson, illustrated by old clips and photos, so it’s his life story and career from his point of view. In the beginning there’s some split screen with overlapping clips of him talking. For a second I thought “Oh shit, that’s right, James Toback did that shitty movie TIMECODE with the 4-way split-screen. I forgot about that movie.” (I bet you forgot about it too until I mentioned it. Sorry.)  But don’t worry, most of it is a simple, straightforward documentary about an unusual person.

[UPDATE: and as Handsome Dan pointed out in the comments I was confusing Toback with Mike Figgis. Toback is guilty of BLACK AND WHITE, but innocent of TIMECODE.]

I don’t really follow boxing so I didn’t know much about him, and it turns out it’s an interesting story. He talks about being picked on as a kid, then getting in his first fight (a guy killed his pigeon) and winning. That changed his whole attitude about himself. Then he started boxing and he met this grizzled old white guy Cus D’Amato, he’s like Burgess Meredith in ROCKY, he takes Mike under his wing and molds him mentally and physically into a warrior. At first Mike wasn’t taking it that seriously, he was still on the streets robbing people and shit, until this D’Amato convinced him he could be great. They had a father-son type relationship, you see through vintage interviews how much they meant to each other, then the guy died when Mike was 19. Real sad story.

mp_tysonWell, there was no turning back, he was an incredible boxer and he quickly pounded his way to world champ. In the movie he talks through a bunch of the important fights, then what it was like to be world famous at that age. Vintage Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters clips pop up talking about his marriage to Robin Givens from HEAD OF THE CLASS. Man, I forgot about that interview, anybody remember that? They’re sitting together and Robin is just tearing him apart for the cameras, acting like an angry mother, calling him “Michael” and saying he’s manic depressive and listing everything he does wrong. And here’s this guy famous for punching the shit out of people, he just sits there with a helpless look on his face and doesn’t say shit. Don’t get me wrong, he was obviously a terrible husband (he says he cheated on her all the time) so you can’t feel too sorry for him, but it’s just weird to see.

Of course the movie has to deal with his rape charge and prison time. He claims he’s innocent and it’s obvious that he’s really bitter about it, but he seems to imply that he didn’t do it that time. It’s kind of like earlier in the movie he talks about being accused of stealing some money when he was a kid, and he didn’t do it but he did have $1500 in his pocket from other crimes so nobody believed him. There’s a scene where he talks about how he likes his sex and it’s kind of disturbing, it’s easy to imagine him not knowing where to draw a line.

He also tells the whole story about biting a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear, and from his point-of-view it makes alot more sense. He blames “accidental headbutts” for losing the title to Holyfield – he kept blacking out and he knew he hadn’t been hit, he didn’t understand what was going on. When the same thing started happening in the rematch it enraged him, he couldn’t believe this guy was doing that to him again, so he went crazy and started biting. He doesn’t really try to justify it, just explain it. I mean, how are you gonna convince somebody to agree with you biting a guy’s ear off? All you can do is explain why it seemed like a good idea at the time. I hope that will be instructive for other ear-biters.

They don’t dwell too much on those moments of insanity, and they don’t even play the whole clip when he threatened to eat his opponent’s children. They do have the clip of when he was with Don King, an entourage and a bunch of cameras the night he got out of prison. Some passerby yells something about how he should be in a straight jacket, and Tyson snaps. It’s like he’s still in the yard, he starts yelling about this “punk ass white boy” and “faggot” and what he’s gonna do to him, including but not limited to “I’ll eat your asshole alive you bitch!” and  “I’ll fuck you ’til you love me!” The funny thing is his entourage doesn’t even really grab him and hold him back or calm him down or anything.

The guy he’s yelling at is never on camera. Too bad, because I bet you could actually see his whole head of hair turn white. It would look like a cheesy special effect, but everybody who was there would swear it really happened. That’s gotta be the most pit of the stomach, shit in the pants scared this dude has ever or will ever be, by far. He must’ve felt like a bear was lunging at his throat but got distracted by honey at the last second. This is the risk you take in this whole Best Week Ever, gossip blog world of everybody making their snarky comments about celebrities, like it’s any of their business. If that’s your thing and you like to say it to the celebrities in person then I recommend choosing a celebrity who is not known for knocking people unconscious with his hands. Just as a rule of thumb. Choose some weeny from American Idol or something, just for safety purposes.

This is an interesting movie because Tyson is such a larger than life character. I mean look at the guy, he’s got a white long-sleeved button up shirt on, like he’s trying to look nice, but he’s got a fuckin Maori war tattoo on his face. You do alot of staring at his face during the movie, noticing how much his nose has gotten pounded in. He looks in shape. It becomes clear that he can’t box like he used to, but he sure looks scarier now than he ever did. And strangely dignified, at least when he wears a nice shirt.

But what really hit me most about the movie is the way it shows this kind of universal tragedy of the guy who works really hard, becomes amazing at something — and then fizzles out. Maybe it’s the fame and the money, maybe it’s just the inevitable cycle of things. When he brags “I’m the best there ever was!” it’s not a completely ridiculous claim. But by the end of his boxing career he’s losing fights, he’s not trying very hard. I never knew about his last fight – he loses to a white dude, and then in the ringside interview he says that his heart’s not really in it anymore, he knows he can’t really fight and he just did it for the money. Honest but sad as hell.

Before the movie they had a trailer for another documentary that’s coming out that’s about Lebron James, focusing on his high school team and how amazing he’s been since a very young age. And that guy’s at his peak right now but TYSON makes you dread the (hopefully not really) inevitable burn out.

And it makes me think of people in all other areas who are great at something. Like, this seems to be the way with rappers. Most of the legendary rappers make about 1-3 great albums early in their career. Then they stay around for years but never recapture that. I was thinking about that because there were a couple albums that came out recently that I was looking forward to, from guys that haven’t had new albums in a while and who used to be the best. And they got some good songs on there but, you know, not greatness. Personally I really hate the southern style of rap that’s so popular now, where it’s based on simple outdated keyboard riffs and robots singing and chants of “oh! oh! ooooooHHH!” and shit like that. I just don’t get it at all, to me it sounds exactly like what the great hip hop sounds like to those dudes who say “it’s not even MUSIC!”

So I don’t understand why a guy from New York or L.A. who created legendary, even groundbreaking, much-imitated music is now coming out with albums imitating the crude shit that is popular now, putting 25 different guest stars on his album, hiring a different producer for every track. It doesn’t make any sense to me. These guys are always comparing themselves in their lyrics to Clint Eastwood, Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis. You stupid motherfuckers – Clint Eastwood didn’t ask the cast of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL to join him in GRAN TORINO. And he didn’t put any matrixy bullet time in there, or Jason Bourne camera wiggles. He went in alone and made a fucking Clint Eastwood movie, because that’s what he’s good at. Worry about being great again, not about hitting the charts again. If you live to be 80 you’ll be more proud of the albums you made than of all the money you put into your shark tank.

But, you know, that’s the cycle that TYSON makes you fear, the inevitability that if you’re great at something it won’t last forever. So the new Wu-Tang album might be pretty good but it’s never gonna be 36 Chambers. Or even 18 chambers. That’s the tragedy of TYSON. You can only be the best there ever was for a couple years, and then you’re just that dude that doesn’t have it in him anymore.

(unless you’re Clint Eastwood)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, May 28th, 2009 at 7:55 pm and is filed under Documentary, Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

20 Responses to “Tyson (2009 Documentary)”

  1. Actually, Mike Figgis made TIMECODE; Toback had nothing to do with that one.

    Haven’t seen TYSON yet, but its interesting that he raised pigeons when he was young – I wonder if he’s a ON THE WATERFRONT fan?

  2. Vern, the thing about music is at best you get about six years in the presence of the muse. Now, when you’re Stevie Wonder and your six years is Where I’m Comin’ From>Music of My Mind>Talking Book>Innervisions>Fullfillingness’s First Finale>Songs in the Key of Life, that’s pretty god damned good. Or The Beatles (entire career 1963-1969). Or Prince 1982-1988. After that, you can still make a good record if you have learned the craft of making a good record. But the likelihood of transcendent art is very small.
    That’s what I like about Clint. You can see the nail holes and saw marks where he went out to the shed to craft his latest picture, whatever it may be. Even when I’m not totally on board with a picture (Million Dollar Baby) you can tell that it was honestly, competently, and professionally written, acted, directed, and shot.

  3. When I was watching this, I kind of thought of Mike as like one of Michael Vick’s pit bulls; a sweet, intelligent dog that was raised in a cold, abusive environment with no choice but to fight. It’s noteworthy how many he times he describes himself as being afraid. Cus was the only real positive influence he ever had, the only person he trusted or felt close to, and after he died I don’t think Mike ever had a chance.

  4. You know what – speaking solely about music – in my opinion there is one dude who has been making consistently good music for 30 years. And I know there’s gonna be people who disagree but that’s cool. That man is Tom Petty. Basically if you like his kind of music, he’s been pretty goddamn solid for roughly the whole time he’s been around. His sound may have changed a bit, but then it always did; some people love his “Damn the Torpedoes” era and others the “Full Moon Fever” era, but if you really look at it close it’s obvious that his sound had evolved or changed somewhat from one point to the other. Same thing with where he is now. But again, if you dig the kind of music he plays, he’s never made a bad album – they range from simply “good” to “fucking fantastic”. And I just realized I’ve gone off about Tom Petty forever on what is basically a site about flicks. Oh well. I guess it’s cause I love the guy’s stuff. Sorry all –

  5. This is a great doc, really amazing how Tyson just splayed himself open and was so honest about his life. Pretty crazy stuff. And little interesting bits of trivia, too, like how he has gonorrhea when he won his fight against Trevor Berbick to win his first belt.

  6. Going back to the Clint Eastwood/Gran Torino reference, I was wondering if you were ever going to review Changeling? Or maybe you saw it and didn’t find much to write about. Just wondering. Anyway, cool review of the Tyson doc. I’ll check it out when it plays near me.

  7. “So, you get old and you cannot hack it anymore. That’s your theory?”
    “Beautifully fucking illustrated.”

  8. Did anyone else catch the THRILLA IN MANILLA documentary (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1330059/)? I caught it on UK television earlier in the year, thought it was pretty decent. The press (including the imdb page) set it up as being pro-Frazier and anti-Ali, but I didn’t think it came across as quite that clear-cut. Ali certainly impresses as a showboat and a bit of a dick early on, but seems to have regretted in later in life. Frazier is entertaining, but between him and his son’s testimony, you get this feeling that the bitterness over the fight has tainted his whole life…

  9. Although its definitely interesting to consider the inevitable decline of any great athlete, I left the movie feeling more in line with Ian, above. Like Tyson was this sort of lost kid, sensitive and maybe a little naive. He was just sort of directionless and scared, until someone came along and helped give him focus and meaning and connection. And then… having that life-defining focus ripped away so young, he just sort of floated away in the whirlwind of celebrity.

    I actually think of Tyson more like Michael Jackson than any other athlete I can think of. They both kind of got pushed into this life and then got super-beyond huge just at the point where there was no one left around them to give them any real advice or help. You can’t really live in the kind of crazy world that they do and not go crazy yourself.

    Watching “Tyson” was also weirdly kind of like watching “The Fog Of War” where these two guys who had been living in their own insular worlds for the majority of their careers… all the sudden they’re old and hated and have to shift their perspective and try to imagine how the world sees them. They both seem genuinely shocked in some ways by the things they had done, which at the time just seemed like the most natural things in the world. And yet, both are also in some ways way too deep into their lives to quite offer a wholesale apology. They have to try to argue that on some level they were right, even if its pretty clear to the rest of us that they aren’t.

    Since we’re talking about music too, I’d just like to say that I thing musicians decline for a slightly different reason than athletes. Classic musicians push the envelope and create something new and exciting, which inspires further generations. However, once you’ve done that, its hard to do it again. Most people never create something truly original. If you can do it two times in your career you’re incredibly lucky. Most classic acts keep writing great stuff, or at least entirely professional stuff (Tom Petty, sure. Dylan, maybe. Rolling Stones, perhaps. Stevie Wonder, Prince, etc.). Its not like the quality of their work really declined, it just became increasingly irrelevant as time went on. The things which were fresh once just became quaint, and the music lost a lot of its edge. Then they were just writing decent tunes, and other generations stepped up to be the new game-changers. Even the folks who reinvented themselves over time (Prince, the Clash, Elvis Costello) never really were able to recapture the zeitgeist of their early work again. Its not because they stopped being great, its just that being “Classic” is at least as much about time and place as it is talent. A lot of really legendary acts (Tupac, Biggie, Nirvana, Beatles, Sex Pistols) died or flamed out before they became irrelevant. Those who didn’t… well, they either shamed themselves with terrible reinventions or just sort of diminished respectably.

  10. I’ll always prefer someone who produced a body of good work over a long career than someone who produced greatness young and then flamed out. In my opinion, greatness is overrated.

  11. Mr. Majestk – which current directors would fit that bill?

  12. I thought we were talking about music, but how about Renny Harlin? He’s never made a few masterpiece, made a few real clunkers, but you know you’re going to be entertained most of the time. He takes the work he’s offered and makes the best of it. I don’t know, I guess journeymen directors are kind of rare these days. You get your auteurs who make prestige pictures and/or indie films and then you get your music video/commercial guys who get a few high-profile studio gigs and then get replaced by the new crop. You don’t see a lot of guys like John Badham, Don Seigel, or Peter Hyams who don’t really have much of a personal style but they work in a lot of genres and rarely embarass themselves. They direct without calling a lot of attention to themselves. I miss guys like that, because you can kind of stop thinking about the style of the movie and just watch the damn thing.

  13. While I do think great athletes have a short period of glory before their inevitable decline, I just don’t buy that when it comes to artists. When athletes decline it’s because their minds and bodies can only function a certain way for so long. When, say, a movie director declines, it’s mostly because of the system – they can’t make the movies they want to make, or in their previous movies they were surrounded by good producers and a good crew and they had a good script to work from and now they don’t have that anymore. Or, they have wildly self-destructive impulses. Or, the system just breaks them and they give up. (I remember in an interview, Tarantino talked about this phenomenon where certain directors make an extremely personal movie that, for whatever reason, bombs and gets bad reviews, and after that they become hacks and mostly direct star vehicles.) But, there are so many people working in the arts who are well in to old age who are doing great work that it makes me think that the idea that an artistic decline is something that’s naturally going to happen – that’s inevitable – is a lot of bullshit. And sometimes that kind of mythological thinking can even obscure the good work that artists do later in their careers.

  14. for me peter weir is that kind of director. from “picnic at hanging rock” to “dead poet society” to “master and commander” he’s always been a masterful, thoughtful and interesting director.

  15. Also I would say Scorsese and Cronenberg are in that club of directors still making great and challenging movies decades into their careers. Especially Cronenberg because his last couple have been a new approach for him and yet up there with his best work.

  16. I think Cronenberg will be good and interesting until the end. The guy is just so smart and always makes what he wants to make. He’s a great artist.

  17. BlackFrankWhite

    May 31st, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    James Toback is one of the most intelligent and brave directors out there. His movies are not pleasant or easy to watch because they deal with anti-heroes and they will always take you to the darkest places, not giving a fuck how you feel about it. Jim Brown’s best role was in Toback’s “Fingers” (which also starred Harvey Keitel). He also provided the brilliant script for “Bugsy”. Say what you say about “Black and White”, it’s no Huggis’ “Crush”. This guy should not be confused with the lame Mike Figgis. If you don’t take my word for it you can check out this conversation between Toback and Tarantino:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HElQrO-FBIM

    Regarding rappers not aging well, I think it’s too soon to tell because Hip Hop is only 30 years old (first single “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang in 1979) and shit can still happen. It’s true that most 80’s giants (Slick Rick, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-1 and Ice Cube) are not doing too well these days. I hope Dr Dre will drop his long awaited masterpiece this year and change this sad picture. As for 90’s giants I think they are still fuckin with the muse big time: Jay Z’s “American Gangster” or Eminem’s “Relapse” (with almost 100% chronic beats by the good doctor) are two recent examples.

    Regarding Southern Rap, I think it saved Hip Hop in the last decade. The east and west didn’t bring anything new to the table since forever. Lyrically I felt for a long time that, except from rare cases like Scarface or Devin the Dude, the south was inferior to east and the west. The last albums by T.I and Lil Wayne proved me wrong.

  18. In some ways, its kind of odd to compare movies/music in terms of their authors, because the way they’re produced and the way they’re consumed is so different. Directors do seem to age much better than musicians, or at least have longer professional lives a lot of the time. I think this may in part be due to the fact that movies are a huge-scale effort which involves the work of a ton of people, some of whom are far more visible than the director. Most serious musicians these days are writer-performers, so unless a director is a writer-director-star they’re much more a part of the product rather than the product itself (even directors like Cronenberg or Gilliam, who make a major imprint on any film they touch, have actors, cinematographers, composers, editors, and often writers to collaborate with. Hence, they’re never quite so indistinguishable from the product itself as musicians are.

    Because music is also so much about the image and vision of a single person, it also hinges upon hipness, freshness, and creativity in a way we don’t really demand from movies in the same way, it seems to me. Hence, musicians have a much harder time making consistently great but also fairly similar albums and staying relevant than directors do.

  19. Vern, did you really not like 8 Diagrams? or were you just using Wu-Tang as a generic reference? I thought it was the best thing they’ve put out in awhile, especially Stick Me for My Riches and Rushing Elephants. Life Changes, the ODB tribute track at the end is pretty good too. I mean, shit, the whole album’s at least decent (with a few exceptions) and definitely has some great tracks.

  20. Mr Majestyk — by the way, I definitely agree with you that I’d rather see someone who was consistently great than someone who had one great idea and then sort of flamed out. On the other hand, I think its hard to keep from saying the same thing over and over unless you grow a little as an artist, try new things, etc. Its a fine line to walk to seek to get better and keep from becoming complacent, while at the same time not reinventing yourself into something artificial to keep the public’s interest.

    like my above post, I think this job is easier for directors than musicians. But still, look at guys like Billy Wilder, Arthur Penn, even the likes of Chaplin and Hitchcock. They built their reputations making a long series of fantastic films, covering a range of styles and material in each case. But by the end of their careers, they didn’t really have anywhere to go anymore. They sort of said all they could really say using the tools that they had at their disposal, and their last couples films range from decent to pointless.

    My point is, I’ll always take sustained craftsmanship (Hitchcock) over a flash of genius (George Lucas). But even committed craftsmen have to adapt and work to keep their muse.

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