Leon Gast

Leon Jacques Gast (March 30, 1936 – March 8, 2021)[1] was an American documentary film director, producer, cinematographer, and editor. His documentary, When We Were Kings depicts the iconic heavyweight boxing match: The Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. This film would go on to win the 1996 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Independent Spirit Award. Gast co-directed the 1977 documentary, The Grateful Dead Movie with guitarist Jerry Garcia. The film captured the band’s October 1974, five-night performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Gast also co-directed the 1983 film Hell’s Angels Forever, which focused on the notorious motorcycle club Hells Angels. The Angels are believed to have learned that Gast put material in the documentary which they didn’t prefer. To this end, Gast claimed that the Angels tracked him down and beat him up.[citation needed] Gast also produced works on B.B. King and Celia Cruz.

American film director
Leon Gast

June 2010
Leon Jacques Gast

(1936-03-30)March 30, 1936

Died March 8, 2021(2021-03-08) (aged 84)

  • Filmmaker
  • artist
Notable work
When We Were Kings
Geri Spolan

(m. 1991)

Children 2

. . . Leon Gast . . .

A native of Jersey City, New Jersey, Gast graduated from Henry Snyder High School and studied dramatic arts at Columbia University,[1][2] and in that same period worked on the television series High Adventure with writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas. Gast is also known for his still photography which has appeared in such magazines as Vogue, Esquire, and Harper’s Bazaar. Gast would make album covers for Fania All-Stars which would lead him to make Our Latin Thing.[1]

Leon Gast is best known for his documentary When We Were Kings, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.[1] The film details the boxing match known as “The Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ali defeated Foreman in the fight, for which the two split a $10 million purse.

Gast was not originally supposed to film this documentary. Gast went to Kinshasa and was still a photographer who had one documentary which was on Latin music. Gast was hired to create a documentary about a three-day music festival that was happening in Kinshasa when the fight was occurring. Zaire’s ruler declared the concert free-of-charge days before it was supposed to happen. This was problematic because funds for the documentary were supposed to come directly from the proceeds of the festival. Five days before the scheduled fight, Foreman acquired a bad cut above one of his eyes and the fight was pushed back six weeks. Gast turned his attention to the fight and centered the documentary on Ali.

When Gast returned from Kinshasa, he had 300,000 feet of 16mm film (138 hours). Initially Gast didn’t have the money to finish the documentary, so he paid the bills by making documentaries on the Grateful Dead and the Hell’s Angels. In 1989, Gast’s former lawyer, David Sonenberg, helped Gast out by putting up almost $1 million to finish the project. The film was first featured at the 1996 Sundance Film festival. Gast won an award for the documentary and was eventually premiered at Radio City Music Hall. Gast spent close to two decades on When We Were Kings. This documentary was focused towards the comeback of Ali who was forced into exile after he objected to the draft during the Vietnam Draft. When We Were Kings has received strongly positive critical reaction. The documentary highlighted an important time in sports. Susan Ryan, who is a Cineaste reviewer, said “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”.[3]

. . . Leon Gast . . .

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. . . Leon Gast . . .

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