The brief and tumultuous life of prizefighter Johnny Tapia, who passed away last year at the age of 45, elicits overwhelming empathy and incredible awe. The documentary directed by Eddie Alcazar, intimately reveals the immense emotional agony and pain he suffered in his life but also shows that for the series of extreme, rock bottom lows of misfortune, Johnny always jumped back up to reach equally extreme heights of success and triumph, like winning five boxing championships, meeting the love of his life, Teresa Tapia, with whom he has a young son, and becoming a beloved hero to his hometown Albuquerque, as well as around the world. Johnny grew up without a father, and his mother was the world to him. At the tender age of 8, his mother was viciously murdered – a traumatic catalyst for what became the pang of his tortured existence. The documentary, which is world premiering in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is powerfully narrated through Johnny’s own words. Alcazar adds a touch of style and a gorgeous cinematic framework. The film opens with Johnny’s slightly raspy Burqueño slanged voice over young Johnny Jr. punching the air in the New Mexico desert plains and celestial horizon captured in wide panoramic vista at the magic hour, painting a metaphysical element to the legacy he leaves.
Eddie was working on a dramatic feature about Johnny but after he passed, Eddie took the research footage and made it into this documentary film. The dramatic feature, which he is co-writing with Bettina Gilois, (Glory Days, The Hurricane) who co-wrote Johnny’s biography, Mi Vida Loca is readying for a fall shoot in Albuquerque. 50 Cent is an executive producer on the documentary and is also onboard for the dramatic version.
The documentary is gripping and utterly poignant. Hearing his inner, unwavering fury takes on a dark possession. His voice and soul feel weary but he is unrelenting against the demons he waged battle with every single day of his life. Seeing him from his early days rising up through the boxing world first as the “Baby-faced Assassin” to his later years as the lines of anguish take over his face and his body becomes heavily drawn with symbolic tattoos, his killer instinct clashing with his vulnerability. At the world premiere screening, his wife Teresa and son, Johnny Jr. came out to introduce the film but did not return after the screening, as much as everyone wanted to see them. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was too overwhelming for them and Eddie declined to do a Q&A out of respect, feeling that what’s important in the doc is Johnny, and Teresa is the only person who could talk about and for him. He told me that a couple days later when I got the opportunity to interview him. I learned the ABQ native has some Bolivian lineage and found out more about both Tapia films. Here’s a redacted transcription of our talk:
How did you know Johnny, how far did you too go back?
I never actually met him until I knew I wanted to do a movie two years ago. Back then it was about creating the narrative version of his life so I sold him on my idea of doing one year of his life in his youth and he was totally up for it. Then I got the rights and we basically just started following him around at that point. As I was following him around I was writing the script. It was all about research and compiling all this archival footage.
Relating to him.
A lot of it is because he embodies the Albuquerque culture, which is a little bit different. Having somebody that stands out from ABQ is always kind of special and he definitely kept it real from his upbringing so I think that’s why everybody in ABQ has that strong connection with him and each other. It’s distinct. The community always looked up to Johnny. There is no professional football or baseball team and he was one of the first professional athletes who came out of that area. More than seven thousand people came out to his funeral.
How did you manage to contrast the darkness of his life with all the other light and positivity he also experienced?
It was tough, which was I never intended to do the documentary. I wanted to concentrate on one year of his life because there is so much to his whole life, and it was a really really hard process confining everything that he’s been through so I was experimenting and discovering it as I went. Bu there are as many highs as there is lows and his life in particular is filled with many from each side of the spectrum. As far as my experience with him I never saw too much of the dark side other than when I interviewed him. I mean personally it was just fun, just me and him playing around. He was always active, jumping on the trampoline, playing ping pong, when we’d go out to eat he’d shake everybody’s hand. He really couldn’t stay in one place for too long.
Doc vs narrative, what do you intend to do with the dramatic feature you weren’t able to do with the documentary
The documentary was about trying to hone in on what he said and having him say it directly to the audience. I didn’t want to interrupt anything too much. We did a little bit of stylistic stuff intertwined to show a little bit of the spiritual side, you know like his connection to his son, and his connection to nature. But I wanted to keep it pretty loose on that, only scratching the surface of what I’m going to do in the feature. The feature is going to definitely be a little dreamy and spiritual. When I say spiritual, there’s this thing that I recognized when I would talk to Johnny, I was always trying to pin point how his mind works – and he feels like his mother is right next to him. So that plays a large role in the actual film; the presence of his mother, always around and also that connection with his youth. In the feature as its written now we pop back and forth in his life from Johnny at 27 years old, and when he was 8 years old when he lost his mother. Its always trying to establish the connection of where he finds all this anger but also power, passion and energy that was super important to have. That drives every action in his life, I think, from that point forward, and I’ve had conversations with people who agree he became stunted at that age. He still felt like an 8 year old when I’d talk to him, he had a child like spirit, insight. He was not that formally educated, he was street smart, he improvised with whatever was around him. He had that excitement, wonder and would be happy to see someone looking to give him love, and made people happy. He was always surprised at any good news.
In a way its hard to imagine him as anything but a boxer, literally pounding and fighting his demons…
He was really hyper, boxing was a natural thing for him, it was a natural release of energy, it was actually perfect, getting into the ring, always training is what kept him alive. It’s hard to think of him as anything else, maybe some other kind of athlete.
How did 50 Cent come on board?
It all came through Lou DiBella, (executive producer) the boxing promoter and tv/film producer. When we finished the film we started showing a handful of people to get people’s thoughts on it. Lou was actually head of the HBO sports division who helped put together the infamous Johnny Tapia/Danny Romero fight back in the day so he had that connection. He showed the movie to 50 cent with who he has a partnership… 50 felt all these similar things and really connected with what Johnny went through (they both suffered the loss of their mother around the same age). Also he grew up in similar crazy circumstances. Its weird how you connect the dots….
Tell me about your producer Andrea Monier
Yes, Andrea Monier has been pivotal. We are friends, she’s also an actress but an amazing producer. We worked on an Everlast spot first and she did an amazing job. To do a documentary you have to have a super strong producer because there is a lot of work like archiving footage, etc. I couldn’t have done it without her.
Describe the driving creative process in writing the narrative
(Losing his mother) that’s the biggest thing. All his issues stem from that; drugs, psychological conditions, we explore a lot of him meeting and falling in love with Teresa. It’s a big part of the film; the love story, but then that also connects to the mother. There’s a lot of similarities between Teresa and his mother as far as the expectations Johnny had, he almost felt like Teresa was his mother, she replaced her in a way.Feeling like a baby with your mother, a lot of the treatment you get from your mother at that age. I come from a single parent as well and it helped me a lot to realize how much Johnny valued his mother. Like, I don’t’ know where I would be without my mother, those thoughts always trickled through my head. Johnny was super proud to have Teresa next to him as his woman. I don’t think he ever constricted her in any way. She was more the person who kept him in place, she was the one who handled the business and dealt with the promoters and he looked up to her in terms of what direction to take. He trusted her opinion above all.
What do you think she saw in him?
She likes to joke that she was young and stupid but I know there’s a lot more to it. She has all the traits that he may have needed help on, and likewise, he showed her the excitement, spontaneity that she was looking for in life, and that quality of never expecting or knowing where the day is going to go was interesting and that’s what she gravitated to.
It must have been hard to watch him fight all the time
Well, the professional aspect is almost better than the day to day reality in ABQ. There are worse street fights, guns involved. Every time I’d go to a party there were gunshots. I wanted to show this world that is not familiar, Breaking Bad does it a little bit but its not as dark or raw as it really is. (ABQ) is a beautiful place but it’s a weird thing; there’s this subculture, an underbelly. It has a big native American population, Spaniards, Mexicans, I don’t know what leads to so much conflict but maybe the biggest thing I can relate to is there’s not too much to do. So people just …they are bored and act crazy sometimes.
Big thanks to Eddie for the interview. LA folks I urge you to go see Tapia tomorrow night, Saturday at 9:50pm at the Regal at LA Live. Get tickets here. Details on the big ABQ screening forthcoming. Also be sure to queue it up on GoWatchit and like it on Facebook to support it and to get updates on where it lands with its theatrical/television/VOD release.