Tuesday 17 November 2020

The quiet man: "Lennox: The Untold Story"

That low rumble you can hear is the Christmas-DVDs-for-dads market gearing up for another year's business. This year's frontrunner is likely to remain Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas's Finding Jack Charlton, which reaches stockists this coming Monday. Seth Koch and Rick Lazes' Lennox: the Untold Story never gets close to landing the same emotional punch, in large part because its subject is found in an altogether better shape. Still, even a project as basic as this can't fail to notice that Lennox Lewis has something of an image problem. As a prologue sets out, the heavyweight championship belt has passed between such legendary figures as Rocky Marciano ("the unbeatable"), Muhammad Ali ("the greatest"), George Foreman ("the strongest") and Mike Tyson ("the baddest man on the planet"). How, then, might one begin to sum up the British-born, Canadian-raised Lewis, a three-time world champion back in the 1990s? The nicest? The quietest? Koch and Lazes clearly realised they needed a gifted hype man to help talk up this story, so they've turned to Dr. Dre to narrate what proves a slick, A-to-B account of Lewis's progress through the junior and amateur ranks and eventual coronation amid those big HBO fight nights. It's a little jolting to hear a founder member of NWA having to navigate this script's largely indifferent treatment of East End poverty (the film rattles through the boxer's backstory to get to the million-dollar paydays); during the end credits, we see Dre narrating Lewis's rise to prominence while the boxer himself hangs out in the studio, which underlines the largely uncritical nature of the story being told here. Deviate from a fighter's approved biographical line, and you risk getting at the very least a thick ear.

Not that there's all that much controversy to address when it comes to Lewis. (There's been far more around Dre, but we forget about that.) The biographical gabble turns up the odd diverting scrap of footage: young Lennox playing Mega Drive with his teenage pals (the EA Sports logo glimpsed on his shorts as he enters the ring to face Tyson is a small, poignant marker of how far he'd travelled), highlights of his Olympic boxing career, which was considerable, impressive, and often overlooked as he collected the gaudy tchotchkes that follow from a successful pro career. But the interviews with old friends and fellow warriors are the very opposite of revealing: time and again, all we hear is how loyal and level-headed Lennox is. Now a happily retired husband and father, Lewis himself is upright in his obligation Kangol flat cap, and articulate in a way many of his predecessors and contemporaries can no longer be, a further sign of his success. (He got out of the game before it impaired him, and while he was in it, he was good enough not to get hit all that often.) And so we keep spotting Koch and Lazes wobbling around their rather straightforward narrative line, wondering whether there are more compelling stories around that they might put on tape. They visibly linger a beat or two extra when interviewing Tyson, with whom Lewis's career was intertwined from a junior level; someone behind the camera clearly wishes James Toback hadn't beaten them to that story. And the directors are understandably sensitive about framing the testimony of Kellie (formerly Frank) Maloney, the trans promoter who, it turns out, will be the subject of Koch and Lazes' next documentary. There's a story for you, fraught with internal struggle and wider social implications; I look forward to hearing what your dad made of it next Christmas. This one's no more than a light sparring session, largely unmemorable: it'll be bought on Christmas Eve, watched on Christmas Day, and on the shelves of charity shops everywhere by the 28th.

Lennox: The Untold Story is available to rent via Prime Video, and on DVD through Altitude.

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