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A Controversial Boxing Legend Tells His Life Story (With the Help of Spike Lee) in HBO’s ‘Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth’

A Controversial Boxing Legend Tells His Life Story (With the Help of Spike Lee) in HBO's 'Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth'

Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” hits theaters in two weeks, but he has a smaller, more personal and weirder project premiering on HBO this Saturday, November 16th at 8pm. “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” is a concert film version of the boxing champ’s one-man show, which Lee got involved with after seeing its initial run in Las Vegas, directing the version that toured the country and reached Broadway last August. Lee also directed the HBO film version of the show, shot over two performances this summer, a kinetic production of moving cameras that cut from wide shots of Tyson on stage in front of a backdrop of projected photos to shots of the audience laughing or wincing along with his story.

As controversial a figure as Tyson is, he does have one hell of a life story — his memoir, which shares the name of the special, was released yesterday and goes into details he doesn’t come anywhere near having time to cover during the lean 90-minute live show. And he’s also the kind of outsized figure, misunderstood but never self-pitying, that it’s easy to see filmmakers like Lee and James Toback (who directed the 2008 doc “Tyson”), both of whom are also his friends, latch onto. Alternating between stories of startling roughness with a childlike charm, he seems in desperate need of someone to mediate this material, to smooth it down into something that mainstream audiences would find palatable.

Lee was perhaps reluctant to sand away all of those edges, and what we see onstage in “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” is a bumpy but riveting affair that stretches from Tyson’s tough childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn to the highs of his championship career, his imprisonment, addiction, and his current place — clean, sober and vegan (!), a family man. The title of the show suggests unvarnished openness, but what it really is is an alternate personal history, a refutation of public assumptions — it presumes you’re already familiar with the signposts of its subject’s life, and skips through those, dwelling on certain events while completely brushing over others, including much of Tyson’s boxing career.

The most enjoyable anecdote is an unexpectedly lengthy account of a relatively minor moment in Tyson’s life — his out-of-the-ring brawl with fellow boxer Mitch Green. It’s told with the help of sound effects and a wig, with Tyson playing both himself and his profanity-spewing opponent, who he at once point compares to “Night of the Living Dead” and Jason from “Friday the 13th” for his ability to pop back up after being laid out.

Tyson muses on his love for his trainer Cus D’Amato with more impressions, and badmouths his ex-wife Robin Givens before telling a story about seeing her with Brad Pitt while they were in the process of getting divorced. He firmly declares “I did not rape Desiree Washington, and that’s all I have to say about this,” before listing all the famous people who came to visit him in prison after he was convicted of just that.

Of his tattoo, he says only “I put this tramp stamp on my face because I wanted to,” while his slide into cocaine use and weight gain are given a cursory treatment. His life doesn’t fit easily into the mold of the celebrity redemption narrative — in part because it’s too easy to imagine Tyson getting into some kind of trouble again, but also because it’s so weighted to his beginnings, as that kid in Brownsville learning to fight on the streets. “I was a beautiful child,” he jokes, when talking about how he stabbed someone.

The good-naturedness of Tyson’s descriptions of those times — “We were like a pack of wild dogs,” he observes — is the most moving quality in this show, colored neither with regret nor apology as he talks about how easily he could have ended up a crime statistic. They feel like they have more unplanned genuineness to them than the production’s sudden swings into pathos, including descriptions of deaths of family members who hadn’t before been mentioned, and whose inclusions are jarringly without lead up. Tyson’s actually good with improv, bouncing off responses shouted from the crowd, and both he and his story feel ready to burst from the confines of the show’s structure and its setting — into something rowdier, more profane and probably more upsetting. It always seems on the verge of happening, even as the credits roll and Tyson heads off stage and into the crowd to shake people’s hands.

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