“Roller derby saved my soul. For sure.”
The roller derby has been around since the 1930s, and has seen many hills and valleys in its popularity over the decades. Currently, it’s undergoing a nationwide grassroots revival, spreading rapidly with no signs of slowing down. Coinciding with the sport’s new “DIY” spirit, a lot of “DIY” documentary filmmakers have taken a shot at capturing what the derby is all about.
In Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers, co-produced by Rockstar energy drinks, first-time filmmaker Chip Mabry takes us inside the world of the Portland’s all-female derby league, where we get to know the players on and off the track.
The first half of the movie is mostly interviews, as we meet a variety of skaters and others involved with the league. These are anecdotes about how they first got involved with the roller derby, and how it’s changed their lives. The emphasis during this part is not so much on the game but on the roller derby as a community. I know everyone means well, but this first part of the movie dragged, as a lot of these interviews came off as repetitive. There are only so many times we can hear variations of, “I knew I had to try it,” or, “They’re the best friends I’ve ever had.” Later in the film, one skater talks about a severe injury she suffered during a bout, and although she doesn’t explicitly say it, the heartbreak of not being able to skate with her team is all over her face. That one look into her eyes says more about how much the sport means to her than the light and chatty interviews at the movie’s start.
In the doc’s second half, the pace picks up considerably, as we follow the league’s travel team on its way to nationals. This is where we see the team members put their hearts and souls—and bodies—fully into the game, and, in great sports movie tradition, we in the audience wonder if this plucky bunch can make it all the way and come home winners. We’re with them during every painful loss and every exhilarating win, and it’s exciting stuff.
Most of the action on the track is limited to montages, collecting a bunch of big hits together to speed us through each game. I think there was only one time that we see a jam in its entirety, from start to finish. I understand that this is a necessity for the filmmakers, to condense a whole series of games into one movie, but newcomers to the world of roller derby will likely have no idea what’s going on. That one guy’s demonstration of the game’s rules using doughnuts in place of players might not help the newbies either.
The movie’s video and audio are excellent, with bright colors on screen and booming rock songs blasting out of the speakers. Two music videos and the theatrical trailer are it for extras.
Despite my criticisms, there is a lot to enjoy here. Anyone curious about what this whole roller derby thing is supposed to be about will find the movie a helpful primer, not just for the game, but the personalities behind it.