Where are the zombie chicks?
“These things, they just kind of fall together. Like you didn’t really have a plan, but parts just come flying in, out of from all over the place. It’s like it’s meant to be.”
—Rico Fodrey, Sinner
Just what is it about motorcycles? For some, it might be a symbol of freedom—hitting the open road with no ties holding you back, able to go wherever you want, whenever you want. For others, the bikes might represent a technical marvel. These folks spend hours in the garage, fixing, adjusting, and tweaking every aspect of their two-wheeled wonders before starting them up. For still others, it could be the sense of camaraderie, a culture of its own hidden under tattoos, grease, and beer. And, for a small few, maybe it’s just the feeling of bugs in your teeth as you ride.
Whatever the source of this fascination, it’s clear that the motorcycle has earned its place in the public consciousness. For a glimpse into the men who make bikes their lives, first-time filmmakers Scott Di Lalla and Zack Coffman aimed their documentary cameras on the Sinners, a group of California’s most hardcore motorcycle experts.
Choppertown: The Sinners starts off when we meet Rico Fodrey. His garage acts as a de facto home base for the Sinners, who slowly gather, one by one, to help fellow Sinner Kutty Noteboom (“I was named after a bottle of scotch!”) build his new chopper. Because these aren’t the wealthiest guys around, their bikes are gorgeous amalgams of restored spare parts and pure ingenuity. When not working on Kutty’s new pride and joy, the guys party at various bars and music shows—several Sinners are also rock or country musicians—as well as hanging out and helping each other through tough times.
It’s all about the quirky oil tank. Early in the movie, Rico and the others marvel over an oddly-shaped, obviously handmade oil tank that fits in perfectly on the frame for Kutty’s new ride. The guys found the tank in a pile of scrap and they figure it’s worth about $5 at most. And yet, it’s so unique, and so unlike any part they’ve ever seen, they’re instantly enamored with it.
This tank would seem to represent the Sinners themselves. If you were to see one of these guys at, say, the Gap, he’d stick out a sore yet tattooed thumb. But get the Sinners together, in their own element, and suddenly they all belong. They look out for each other with almost fanatical devotion, but that’s because all they have is each other. That funny oil tank would out of place on any other machine, but it’s perfect for Kutty’s bike. The Sinners are odd collection of guys, but they’re a perfect fit for their own little world.
Another early scene in the film shows the guys at a party, where one Sinner is on stage, playing some rock with his band. It’s not long before a genuine barroom brawl breaks out, right in front of the cameras. At first, I wasn’t sure if was real or if the guys were just horsing around. Seeing torn shirts and bloody knuckles in the aftermath, though, it looked like the real deal to me. This scene would seem to paint the Sinners as the typical “biker gang” as their name implies. That image is only heightened later, when the Sinners show their fondness for switching license plates on bikes more often than some people switch shirts.
But before anyone considers this crowd nothing but a bunch of troublemakers, we also get a look at the fierce loyalty they have for each other. They cheer on one another’s successes, and they are always there for a fellow Sinner whenever he needs help. They give each other haircuts, they greet each other with hugs, and, at one point, two of them kiss on the lips—but, you know, in a macho way. It’s a big honor, we’re told, to be welcomed into the fold as a Sinner. And once you are, you know you’ve got a bunch of great guys always watching your back.
Okay, enough touchy-feely-huggy stuff. How are the bikes? They might not have the “wow” factor seen in highbrow showroom floors, but they certainly roar to life with the same loud ferocity. There’s a lot of footage here of the Sinners on the road, driving along highways with sunsets in the background, not a care in the world for any of them. They put all the worries and hassles of daily life behind them when they’re on their choppers, and they enjoy the pure simple thrill of the ride.
As the movie neared the two-thirds point, its loose, tone poem-like structure started raising a lot of questions in my head. Like, does a documentary need to adhere to basic storytelling structure, or can non-narrative raw footage of the subject be enough for a compelling film? Looks like those questions will have to be debated another day, because the creators pulled a fast one on me. They returned to the subject of Kutty’s bike at the film’s conclusion, revealing that there was indeed a narrative structure all along. Some viewers might enjoy the slightly non-linear nature of the storyline, while others might be frustrated by it.
Choppertown: The Sinners arrives on DVD courtesy of Di Lalla and Coffman’s own creation, One World Studios. Although the visuals are not overly flashy, the digital transfer here shows no evident flaws. The stereo track is a good one, especially when the rock music and the thunderous chopper engines kick in. The only extras here are some bonus footage, and a collectible booklet with color photos of the bikes.
Back to my original question: Just what is it about motorcycles? That isn’t quite answered here, except for a feeling of, “If you’re not a part of this world, you’ll never understand.” I personally have never ridden a chopper, so maybe I’m missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. But the other themes seen in Choppertown: The Sinners, those of friendship, brotherhood, and overcoming adversity are universal for all of us, whether you know a weirdly-shaped oil tank when you see it or not.