Gast, Leon 1937-

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GAST, Leon 1937-


Born 1937, in Jersey City, NJ. Education: Attended Columbia University.


Writer, director, producer, editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Director of films, including Our Latin Thing, 1972, B.B. King: Live in Africa, 1974, The Grateful Dead, 1977, Celia Cruz: Guantanamera (video), 1989, When We Were Kings, 1996, 1 Love, 2003, and Jumpshot, 2004; producer of films, including Salsa, Fania Records, 1976, Celia Cruz, 1989, When We Were Kings, 1996, and 1 Love, 2003; also film editor of B.B. King and When We Were Kings. Contributor of still photography to periodicals such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue.


Sundance Film Festival Special Recognition Award, 1996, Academy Award (Oscar), 1997, and Truer Than Fiction Award, Independent Spirit Awards, 1997, all for When We Were Kings.


(And producer) Hell's Angels Forever (screenplay), Wescom Productions, 1983.


Leon Gast is a writer, director, and producer of documentary films, concert movies, and other nonfiction video works. He has produced works on legendary bluesman B.B. King, famed Latin music diva Celia Cruz, the Grateful Dead, and other musical acts. He produced a biographical documentary on the notorious motorcycle club Hells Angels, which offered its own share of troubles. When the Angels found that Gast had included material that they did not want in the movie, they tracked him down and beat him up, according to Gast in a Washington Post profile by Frank Ahrens. "I had put some stuff in they didn't want in, and I got thumped two times," Gast told Ahrens. "The second time, they came to my apartment. I opened the door and they popped me. They never really beat me up, though. They took off their brass knuckles."

It was Gast's documentary of one of the greatest boxing matches of all time, however, that has become his best-known and most lauded work. In When We Were Kings Gast turns a detailed documentary eye on 1974's Rumble in the Jungle, a match between then-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and George Frazier. Though the material for the documentary was gathered largely in 1974, it had a troubled gestation of nearly twenty-three years during which Gast fought for control of rights, looked for funding, and carefully constructed the work that earned him and executive producer David Sonenberg an Academy Award in 1997.

The Rumble in the Jungle event was sponsored by the dictatorial president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, who ironically saw it as a means of promoting tourism in his troubled country. Mobutu drained his country's coffers of more than ten million dollars to provide the purse for the fight, with five million promised to each of the fighters. He also sponsored a musical concert with performances by prominent black musicians of the day, including B.B. King, James Brown, the Pointer Sisters, Bill Withers, The Spinners, Miriam Makeba, and others. Originally tapped to film the concert, Gast instead became one member of the vast press corps stranded for six weeks in Zaire after Foreman suffered a cut above his eye during training and had to postpone the bout until the wound healed. With nothing else to do, Gast and his crew filmed Ali and Foreman as they lived and trained in Zaire during that fortuitous delay.

The George Foreman of 1974 was a fearsome, unsmiling, hulking presence, markedly different from the affable television pitchman widely known in 2006. Ali, in contrast, was jovial and loquacious, quick with a jibe or extemporaneous poem, full of humor, self-confidence, and vitality. His demeanor and physique meshed perfectly with the camera, and his own towering presence dominates Gast's documentary. The thirty-two-year-old Ali was considered past his prime, and Foreman was heavily favored to win. Ali's upset victory over Foreman became a defining moment not only in Ali's career, but in all of sports—the stuff of which legends are made.

Critical reaction to Gast's film has been strongly positive, much of it couched in nostalgic terms for the heyday of boxing's greatest. "This entertaining documentary shows the boxer at one of the most celebrated moments in his career, dancing around the press, and preaching black pride with the same skill that he once used dancing around the ring," remarked Cineaste reviewer Susan Ryan. "Gast's brilliant film evokes a time when the whole world was Ali's country," commented Richard O'Brien in Sports Illustrated. The film is "guaranteed to move the souls of even the most boxing illiterate," observed Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly.



Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 20, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Cineaste, fall, 1996, Susan Ryan, review of When We Were Kings, p. 54.

Commentary, June, 1997, Jonah Goldberg, review of When We Were Kings, p. 51.

Entertainment Weekly, February 21, 1997, Lisa

Schwarzbaum, review of When We Were Kings, p. 105; July 11, 1997, Cheo Tyehimba, review of When We Were Kings, p. 75.

Insight on the News, March 17, 1997, Thom Loverro, "The Greatest of Alllll Time," review of When We Were Kings, p. 36.

National Review, March 24, 1997, John Simon, review of When We Were Kings, p. 56.

New Republic, February 17, 1997, Stanley Kauffmann, review of When We Were Kings, p. 27.

Newsweek, February 17, 1997, David Ansen, review of When We Were Kings, p. 66.

New York Times, July 21, 1972, Roger Greenspun, "Screen: Doing Our Latin Thing As Documentary"; July 4, 1997, "New Video Releases," review of When We Were Kings.

People, February 24, 1997, Ralph Novak, review of When We Were Kings, p. 19; March 24, 1997, Nancy Matsumoto, "From Off the Canvas: Spotlight on … Leon Gast," p. 22.

Sports Illustrated, November 4, 1996, Richard O'Brien, review of When We Were Kings, p. 20.

Time, February 17, 1997, Richard Corliss, review of When We Were Kings, p. 83.

Variety, February 12, 1996, Todd McCarthy, review of When We Were Kings; January 15, 1997, Steve Chagollan, profile of Leon Gast.

Washington Post, March 2, 1997, Frank Ahrens, "Director Gast Goes the Distance," review of When We Were Kings.

ONLINE, (September 23, 2006), Greg King, review of When We Were Kings.

Boxoffice Magazine Film Review, (September 23, 2006), Dale Winogura, review of When We Were Kings., (April 21, 1997), Fred Wesley, "Kings for a Day,"

Internet Movie Database, (September 23, 2006), filmography of Leon Gast.*