Tyson

Sony Classic Release April 24, 2009

Cannes Film Fest 2008 (Certain Regard)
–“Tyson,” James Toback's intimate and highly sympathetic portrait of Mike Tyson, the heavyweight champion who for many people still represents one of the most primitive and “baddest” human beings, sheds light on the life of its notorious protagonist, trying (but doesn't always convince) to explain the man's demons, and his sinking into the lowest depths of conduct.

Even so, the docu, which received its world premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest's sidebar Un Certain Regard, deserves a look by audiences, who may learn a thing or two they didn't know about Tyson, the subject of several TV movies, numerous news shows and interviews. Theatrical prospects are good for a limited release of a docu that would get larger exposure in ancillary markets, TV and DVD.

It's good to see Toback practicing again his skills behind the camera after several artistic and commercial flops, including “Exposed,” “Black and White,” and “When Will I Be Loved.” Arguably, with the exception of Paul Schrader, it's hard to think of another 1970s intelligent filmmaker, who enjoyed a brilliant beginning, with such efforts as “Fingers” and “The Pick-Up Artist” (with Robert Downey Jr.), but then for various reasons experienced a tremendous decline.

Toback has been more successful as a scribe, penning the gangster biopic and multiple Oscar-nominee “Bugsy” (with Warren Beatty), but that was in 1991. Toback's last decent (but decidedly not great) film was “Two Girls and a Guy,” a decade ago, a serio-comic examination of a menage-a-trois, rumination on the incompatibility of romantic monogamy and sexual curiosity, starring Robert Downey Jr., Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner.

“Tyson” is Toback's second non-fictional work after “The Big Bang,” his 1999 feature that explores the intricate connections between orgasm, sex, love, madness, murder, crime, death and the origin and fate of the cosmos. I recommend that you rent this eccentric docu, whose cast includes a philosopher-nun, an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor, a gangster, a cosmologist, a jazz saxophonist, a basketball star, a concert violinist, and two children.

Adopting the format of a lengthy, in-depth interview, “Tyson” is a non-judgmental work that examines the rise and fall of the boxer-celeb, who comes across as a more complex, interesting, alert, and even funny man than given credit to. The key to Toback's docu is based on Tyson's own observation, “They can judge me but they will never understand me.” Nor does Toback, for that matter.

Toback has first met Tyson two decades ago, when actor Anthony Michael Hall brought him to the set of “The Pick-Up Artist,” in the Museum of Natural History, to meet Downey Jr. They continued to see each other and kept in touch, when Tyson got out of prison after three and a half year stint for a false rape conviction. In fact, Toback created a role for Tyson in his film “Black and White, giving the celeb what he describes as the leeway to riff on the abyss of prison misery,” which Tyson played with great power.

In the docu, which uses for the most part Tyson's own words and often bizarre, pseudo-intellectual observations, the champ recalls his tough childhood, growing up in poverty and misery. Looking at a man like Tyson, it's almost hard to believe that he was bullied and humiliated as a young boy, and that his future life had been shaped by those traumatic episodes.

Introduced to boxing at the young age of 12, Tyson acknowledges the influential role of his first major trainer, the legendary Cus d'Amato, who became a father-mentor figure. He relates in a rather candid and engaging mode how boxing brought not only a semblance of order, discipline, and structure to an otherwise messy, hard life, but also a greater sense of self-esteem and even pride. Indeed, in 1986, at age 20, Tyson became the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight championship, when he defeated Trevor Berbick. It was barely a year after D'Amato's death, which means that the most important man in Tyson's life never got to see him at his greatest moment of fame and glory.

Shortly after, like other rages-to-riches stories of many showbiz celebs, abuse and degradation begin with excessive drinking, drugs, and all kinds of women. Tyson admits to have gone through several rehabs in order to get clean and sober.

Cinematically, “Tyson” is a rather conventional, straightforward docu, with Toback the interviewer asking direct, often confrontational questions (but not appearing on screen), while his camera zooms in on his subject with some revelatory close-ups. Split screen and overlapping soundtrack in which we hear Tyson's conflicting voices and emotions occupying a mind that's truly a battlefield.

A shrewd filmmaker, Toback knows when to insert humorous anecdotes and how to variegate the tone of his 90-minute work so that it will not appear as a talking-head film. To that extent, he includes archival footage of major Tyson fights on the ring with Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and Buster Douglas, as well as TV interviews and old newsreels.

One of the film's highlights is a revelatory Barbara Walters interview, in which Tyson and former wife-actress Robin Givens share some candid thoughts, including Givens' testimony of Tyson's manic-depressive manner and both physical and mental abuse. “We were just kids,” Tyson later says about his brief (only eight months) marriage.

Ultimately, what's interesting about Toback's approach is its effort to understand Iron Mike's deep rage and inner demons, speculating that they may reflect lifelong damaging low self-esteem.  Some of the anger was obviously channeled into his work, as he remarks, “You could say that my job was to hurt people.”

Toback seems too accepting of Tyson's “blackouts,” those dark moments that unleashed his worst, animalistic instincts, leading to outrageous (mis) conduct in both public and private life. The helmer refuses to clinically diagnose his subject, but it's never entirely clear how much he believes his protag's subjective theories and whether he thinks they serve as sufficient or rational explanation for irrational behavior. For that goal, another, more detached and probing work would be needed. (A colleague remarked at the end of the press screening that “Tyson” suggests a clear case of brain damage).

In the end, we are left with a partial portrait that humanizes Tyson, showing him as softer and more self-conscious than his long-enduring public image had allowed, but shies away from real illumination of a man, who's still struggling with achieving a peace of mind.

Credits

A Fyodor Productions and Green Room Films presentation.

International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.

Produced by James Toback, Damon Bingham.

Executive producers: Mike Tyson, Harlan Werner, Nicholas Jarecki, Henry Jarecki, Bob Yari.

Co-producers: Warren Farnes, Salaam Remi, Nas.

Directed by James Toback.

Camera: Larry McConkey.

Editor: Aaron Yanes.

Music: Salaam Remi; song “Legendary” by Nas.

Sound: David Gekler. Supervising sound editor: Byron Wilson.

Re-recording mixers: Skip Lievsay, Brad North.

Running time: 90 Minutes.