“Find Your Strength in Love”

5 Jun

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing. – Muhammad Ali

Well, if anyone had ask me when I began this blog back in 2011 if I ever thought I’d be writing about boxer Muhammad Ali, I would have answered, “Not likely.” Yet, here we are. The man himself passed away Friday evening, June 3, 2016, at age 74 and after a decades long battle with Parkinson’s disease–a legend, an icon in both sports and popular culture arenas, so to speak. What a life. I am not in a position to make sweeping claims about the life of the man once known as Cassius Clay–how many of us first remember him–nor am I a sports expert with enough background to write about his accomplishments in the ring though the evidence speaks for itself.

What I know, and what I write about, are movies.

Back in 2001, the late Mr. Ali was accorded the big screen biopic treatment, courtesy of writer-director Michael Mann, then riding high on widespread critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for c0-producing, directing, and co-writing 1999’s tobacco industry takedown The Insider, an expose framed as a suspense story as seen from the perspective of a real-life 60 Minutes producer (played by Al Pacino). Stepping into the role of Ali in Mann’s film was none other than box office contender Will Smith, a hugely popular actor who had risen through the ranks to top box office status thanks to such smash hits as Bad Boys and Men in Black. We played Ali at the theater where I worked. I didn’t love it, and I don’t remember it being an especially impressive crowd pleaser during its run. That noted, Smith earned his first Oscar nomination for his efforts, so good for him. The movie also helped co-star Jon Voight–embodying no less than blustery, high profile sports announcer Howard Cosell–snare a supporting actor nod, so good for him as well.

IMAGE: Columbia Pictures/Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greatest_(1977_film)#/media/File:The-greatest-movie-poster-1977.jpg

Reviewing The Greatest in a New York Times piece entitled, “Ali’s Latest Victory is ‘The Greatest,'” Vincent Canby wrote, ” You might call Muhammad Ali a natural actor, but that would be to deny his wit, sensibility, drive, ability, enthusiasm, poise and common sense, all of which are the conscious achievements of an ambitious man who has known exactly what he has wanted for a long time.”  IMAGE: Columbia Pictures/Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greatest_(1977_film)#/media/File:The-greatest-movie-poster-1977.jpg

Truthfully, I always thought the Mann-Smith production was a bit redundant since no less than Muhammad Ali himself had already dramatized his own life story with 1977’s The Greatest in which he, to clarify, portrayed himself. Why watch Smith act Ali’s life story when Ali had already committed the story to celluloid more than a decade earlier? That, and the fact that Ali had also already been the subject of an Oscar winning documentary, When We Were Kings, in 1996?

But I digress.

Released in the spring of ’77, literally days ahead of the Star Wars juggernaut, and based on Ali’s book (co-authored by Herbert Muhammad and Richard Durham and adapted by Ring Lardner, Jr.), The Greatest also featured such talent as Lloyd Haynes, Roger E. Mosley, Paul Winfield, and James Earl Jones–the latter cast as Malcolm X.

My guess is that most moviegoers either don’t know or have forgotten about this film. I didn’t see it when I was a kid, but, then, I didn’t see that many first-run flicks at that point; however,  I did catch up with it years and years later, sometime in the 1990s, well before Mann’s take.  I remember most vividly watching the opening credits, and the song that played over footage of Ali jogging. That song was and is “The Greatest Love of All,” recorded by George Benson, and composed by Michael Masser and Linda Creed. By all accounts, Benson–a top recording artist of the times with such hits as “Masquerade” and a cover of The Drifters’ “On Broadway”–enjoyed considerable success with this tune, but I, for the life of me, don’t ever remember hearing it on the radio, but I recognized it right away when I watched the movie that morning.

^Opening of 1977’s The Greatest: AMC via YouTube

Of course, the song’s relative obscurity took a wild turn with the emergence of Whitney Houston, who belted out the song, full-throttle anthem style, on her 1985 debut album–released on the Arista label, the same as The Greatest soundtrack. Houston’s is the version that most of us know and love, and why not? It’s freakin’ gorgeous with the singer’s impassioned delivery, a stirring arrangement, and powerfully inspirational lyrics. It even earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year two years after the album’s release, a feat, that. Yet, for all of Houston and her mentor Clive Davis’s savvy, we must remember that they didn’t invent the song–in the same way that they also didn’t invent the singer’s mega-smash “I Will Always Love You,” a Dolly Parton original made even more famous by Houston’s bravura cover for 1992’s The Bodyguard soundtrack…but I digress.

The point is that “The Greatest Love of All,” shortened to “Greatest Love of All” for Houston’s rendition, is a classic, a triumphant entry in the so-called Great American Songbook. We’ve heard it so many times that it has beome a part of us, a part of our collective consciousness. It’s been performed and parodied hither and yon, but we need to remember its source. The overall effect is much different when seen in its original context, the story of a man on a journey to be his authentic self–and winning against considerable odds. It bespeaks a kind of poignancy.

It probably comes as no surprise to find that the song was overlooked for Best Song consideration by the Academy back in the day. Of course, as I have noted in a previous column, which I always intended to extend to a second edition, the 1977/78 Oscars represented a disconnect in Uncle Oscar’s music branch. Again, also overlooked for Academy consideration were any and all songs from both Saturday Night Fever (an indisputable pop culture landmark) and New York, New York. Of course, the race pretty much began and ended with “You Light Up My Life” from the film of the same name. The song, covered by Debby Boone, was everywhere, racking up stratospheric sales and soaring to the top of Oscar’s “Most Wanted” list. No doubt coming in a close second would have to be Carly Simon’s radio-friendly “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me, yet another entry in the popular James Bond series. In that context, “The Greatest Love of All” probably didn’t seem like a significant achievement. On the other hand, what about the other three nominees? Hmmmm…hard to find fault with Disney contenders, “Candle on the Water” (Pete’s Dragon) and “Someone’s Waiting for You” (The Rescuers). The former certainly had its fans and was performed in the film by no less that ever-reliable Helen Reddy; the latter appeared in one of the studio’s best received films–both critically and commercially–in several years. To further clarify, the former was combination of live action and animation (per Mary Poppins) while the latter was an animated delight. Again, who would complain? Of course, the fifth nominee, “The Cinderella Waltz” from The Slipper and The Rose has always been a head scratcher. Simply, there were better choices, “The Greatest Love of All” being just one of them.

Of course, an Academy nod isn’t the end-all, be-all, and we know this better than ever, thanks to Houston’s magnificent recording. Besides the subsequent Grammy nomination, other accolades include–belated–recognition from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers as one of the Most Performed Feature Film Standards. And it all began in a film about the incredible life and times of Muhammad Ali.

There are amazing stories to be found about this song and its creators, but they have almost nothing to do with Ali or even Whitney Houston, so save those for another time. You can google to your heart’s content.

In the period around 1987-1989, “Greatest Love of All” kept me going through some dark times. I especially embraced it after the soloist performed it one Sunday morning at the church I attended. Suddenly, everything made sense, and I kept coming back, and keep coming back, to the last line: “Find your strength in love.”

Ever since I first heard those words, I’ve held on to the hope that it is indeed  possible for all of us to find our strengths in love.

Thanks for your consideration…

^ This clip includes the lyrics and the full version of George Benson’s version of “The Greatest Love of All”

Vincent Canby’s review of The Greatest in The New York Times (21 May 1977): http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F00E6D71331E034BC4951DFB366838C669EDE

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