“Are you calling this bettering yourself? Going out there and roller skating?”
The roller derby was created and gained popularity during the Great Depression, and rose to incredible fame in the late 60s and early 70s, and its current millennial revival has made it the fastest-growing sport in the country. But what is it, exactly, that makes someone want to join this fast-paced, full contact, yet very quirky sport? The 1971 documentary Derby attempts an answer.
It’s 1971, and roller derby is the hottest sport around. Mike Snell, 23, believes he’s going to become the derby’s next big star. After a brief chat with skating legend Chris O’Connell, Snell gets an invitation to head out to California for training. As he prepares to leave, we see Snell at his day job in a factory, hanging out with his family and friends, and other aspects of his life at the time. Meanwhile, the derby surges ahead with high-speed jams and hard hits on the banked track.
Here’s an interesting exercise in how a movie’s marketing can often be wildly different from the movie itself. Both the packaging for Derby and its theatrical trailer describe it as one kind of film, but the result is something else entirely.
All descriptions of the movie paint it as two things. First is as a behind-the-scenes look at the sport, with the ongoing debate of whether it appeals to fans for the game or the violence. Second is a tale of Snell the would-be skating star, with O’Connell as his personal Obi Wan on wheels. Viewers should know, however, that this is not exactly the case. Despite being told that O’Connell would be Snell’s mentor, they only meet once, early in the film. I kept waiting to see what would happen when they reconnected later on, but it never happened. Likewise, this isn’t the tell-all behind-the-scenes documentary as promised, either. Sure, there are the occasional moments of locker room banter, and O’Connell discusses his history with the sport, but that’s about it.
So, if this isn’t the movie that was advertised, just what movie is this? Mostly, it’s a slice-of-life snapshot of a moment of time in one person’s life. The camera follows Snell around everywhere he goes, at work, at home, applying for a bank loan, and at a sleazy bar. How to describe Snell? He’s got this retro 1950s style, with his black jacket, wave-front hair, and his always-on sunglasses, which he swears are prescription. His look is like Elvis meets Buddy Holly meets Jack Lord meets that “I wear my sunglasses at night” guy meets…Oh, forget it. He looks like this:
Your opinion might vary from mine here, I know, but it’s my feeling that this movie makes Snell look like quite the jerk. There are scenes in which he admits extra-marital affairs (that’s right, more than one), and others when he admits to skipping out on work to go have fun. OK, so none of us is a saint, but the other big stinker regarding Snell is that, despite his insistence on becoming a skating star, we never once see him skate. If he’s this determined to join the derby, why isn’t he out there practicing day and night, making himself the best he could be? Instead, he sits around drinking and merely talking about how great he is. But, then, this isn’t about Snell himself, but how he’s portrayed. Is this the real him? Is he putting on a show for the cameras? What’s happening when the cameras aren’t rolling? Rather than being drawn into this guy’s life, I found myself questioning the validity of what I was seeing on screen.
The other half (OK, third) of the movie has to do with O’Connell, and this is the more straightforward documentary part. O’Connell addresses the camera directly, and goes over his history and then-current standing in the roller derby. We see his beginnings, as he revisits the public park where he skated in his first bout, and then his fancy-pants hillside home. It’s also by following O’Connell that we get a lot of skating action.
That’s right — despite the overall slice-of-life feel of the movie, there is some sweet game footage, including one of the legendary Madison Square Garden bouts. There are a lot of wild moves, including double whips, pullaways, block breakthroughs, and more. As is often the case with the old-school derby, there’s no shortage of fights breaking out. It’s pretty funny, actually, especially as the panicking referees nervously run in circles around the fighting skaters, knowing they should do something, but are too terrified to do so.
This disc from Code Red contains two commentaries, one from director Robert Kaylor (Carny) and the other from producer William Richert (Winter Kills). Kaylor’s is the better one. He discusses the ultra-low-budget filming process — the whole crew was only five people — and he’s not against poking some gentle fun at the folks on screen. Richert takes the film more seriously, describing it as a portrait of Vietnam-era America. The theatrical trailer comes with an introduction by the editor who put it together, revealing the famous actor (guess who!) did the narration. From there, we’re treated to Kaylor’s directorial debut, the short film Max Out. It’s about the plight of ex-cons trying to find work. The gimmick is that the entire cast is made up of actual ex-cons, which certainly gives it a gritty, “real life” feel. Kaylor contributes a commentary to this as well. Finally, there are numerous trailers for other Code Red releases, which appear to be mostly forgotten ’70s thrillers.
Also note that this is the unrated cut of Derby. It originally got an “R” rating upon release, but was then recut to gain a rare “GP” rating. For these release, it’s been reedited to this unrated version. The big controversy has to do with not one but two characters that have pictures of naked ladies all over their walls.
I have no idea what path this movie has taken from its original release to now, but I get the sense that it’s been forgotten about for some time. An opening text states that Derby has been restored from a copy preserved at UCLA. Interesting, but still viewers should know that the picture quality on this disc is very, very rough. Scratches, grain, dirt, Tyler Durden’s cigarette burns, and more are all over the place. The mono sound isn’t very forgiving, either.
What to make of this movie? It’s not what was advertised, but it was still interesting. It has a lot of entertaining bits, but a lot of frustrating parts as well. For those with an interest in the subject, or in the low-budget documentary style, give it a rental.