Shadowboxing With Mike Tyson

Looks like dear old Mikey is back or NOT since documentaries and movies are made of dead people or guys who were once famous ??but are now out…

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Shadowboxing With Mike Tyson

As filmmaker James Toback sees it, there were two episodes that shattered boxer Mike Tyson's identity. In the first, Mr. Tyson spent three years in jail on a 1992 rape conviction, where he became mentally unhinged; in the second, he made himself a pariah by biting through rival Evander Holyfield's ear in a 1997 bout.

"Just as prison was the before and after for him psychologically, the Holyfield fight was the before and after for him sociologically," Mr. Toback says. "The chapter of Mike Tyson was over."

A new chapter for the fallen fighter could be starting with "Tyson," a documentary directed by Mr. Toback that opens on April 24. The movie bluntly portrays the rocky path of history's youngest heavyweight champion. It also illustrates how documentaries can function as star vehicles for their subjects.

Mr. Toback, who is better known for his feature films, including "Black and White," a drama about race relations, shunned most devices commonly used by documentary filmmakers, such as interviewing an array of people to construct an objective profile.

In "Tyson," the most damning testimony comes from the subject himself. The film is essentially an extended monologue by the boxer, interspersed with archival news clips, interviews and footage from his fights. Mr. Toback, who has known Mr. Tyson since 1985, captured him in a fragile and introspective mood while he was checked into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. In his high, pinched voice, Mr. Tyson veers from bitter self-recrimination — calling himself a "leech" and an "insane individual" — to boasting about his sexual adventures and his skill in "the art of skullduggery." To deliver a "complicated and contradictory truth" about the boxer, Mr. Toback used split screens, which present a mosaic of talking Tyson heads and overlapping words.

Mr. Tyson could not be reached for comment.

In a challenging market for independent films, where nonfiction titles face an especially tough outlook, it has become increasingly common for documentary filmmakers to rely on the promotional efforts of their subjects, especially celebrities. At the Cannes Film Festival, Mr. Tyson walked the same red carpet as soccer star Diego Maradona, the namesake of a documentary called "Maradona: The Hand of God." The fighter also appeared at the Sundance Film Festival last January.

Along wi
th Mr. Toback, Mr. Tyson's managers, Damon Bingham and Harlan Werner, are among the producers of "Tyson." And the fighter is credited as an executive producer, a vague title in the movie industry that can identify anyone from a financier to friend of the director. Mr. Toback says that, in keeping with the ethical guidelines observed by most nonfiction filmmakers, he did not pay Mr. Tyson to participate in the project.

According to the terms of their agreement, however, Mr. Tyson does stand to earn money if the film makes a profit. One reason to include Mr. Tyson in potential profits, the director says, is that he contributed valuable footage, especially from the infamous Holyfield fight.

The director used his own money to launch the project quickly when Mr. Tyson went into rehab, ultimately spending about $2 million, he says. He later sought out investors, including National Basketball Association star Carmelo Anthony, to cover about $900,000 in remaining expenses, such as buying rights to some archival footage. To turn a profit, "Tyson" must first recoup the amount that its distributors, including Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S., paid for the original purchase and ongoing marketing of the movie. Mr. Toback says, "Unless the movie is a big success, Mike and I will not get anything."

Write to??John Jurgensen at??john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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