Jam (2006) (DVD)

The seven-year saga of the American Roller Derby League.

Strange but true: During the late 1960s/early 1970s, roller derby got higher TV ratings than baseball, basketball, and even football. Derby bouts were sold out to packed audiences at stadiums all over the country, including Madison Square Garden. Jump ahead to today, where the sport is experiencing a new revival. It’s currently the fastest-growing sport in the nation, with new teams and leagues popping up all over the country.

But what happened in between these times, when the sport was seemingly forgotten? (Never minding short-lived oddball revivals like Rollergames, with its infamous alligator pit, and WSL Rollerjam, with its embarrassingly bad scripted elements.) In the late 1990s, when it seemed no one else cared, one small group in San Francisco kept the sport going through tough times. The documentary Jam tells their story.

Meet Tim Patten. This San Francisco resident spent years, and every time he had, struggling to keep the American Roller Derby League up and running. Once upon a time, the league—and its most famous team, the Bay City Bombers—were big stars with television contracts. As Jam begins, though, things are different. Despite poor attendance, aging skaters, and possibly unscrupulous business partners, Patten refuses to give up on his dream of seeing the sport return to its glory days.

Along the way, we get to experience the lives of some of the others in the league, including popular skaters Alfonso Reyes, Larry Lee, Jan Vallow, Sherry Erich, Larry Stull, Karey Marengo, Pam Schwab and Stacey Blitsch, along with some of their families and loved ones.

Many great tales of the roller derby, and sports in general, have to do with rivalries. In Jam, the rivalry is strictly behind the scenes. The movie begins with Patten and other members of the league fretting over the fact that profits from a bout were missing, with the blame going to Dan Ferrari, league accountant. This conflict casts a shadow over everything that follows in the film. Ferrari gets booted from the league, but somehow still manages to be involved with the sport in one way or another.

The incident with Ferrari is the first of many obstacles Patten faces while trying to revive interest in the derby. What we have here is the sport at most bare-bones. Homeless workers are hired to construct the banked track. Bouts take place in high school gyms in front of audiences of only a few hundred. Skaters in their 50s, or older, squeeze their paunch-tastic bodies into their uniforms and hit the track, where they’re a bit slower than they were in their glory days. These people’s homes are…well, let’s just say they don’t live in mansions. The fact that this ragtag group can get its act together to stage a bout at all shows just how passionate they are about this sport.

There’s a powerful feeling of sadness throughout this whole documentary. The fact that their glory days are long gone is not lost on the skaters. Money worries are a constant source of stress for everyone, made even worse after a chunk of it is allegedly stolen. Then, it gets even more heartbreaking. A major part of Jam’s seriousness comes from the fact that both Patten and his partner are HIV positive. They share a lot of frank—some might say uncomfortable—conversations about suffering and dying. Their attitudes are pretty good, considering, but it still adds to the sense of gloom.

The picture, which jumps back and forth between color and black and white, tends to be slightly grainy, but never so much that it distracts from the story. The audio, featuring several amusing derby-related songs, comes through clean and clear. Two featurettes look back at the production, first with a Q&A from the filmmakers at the movie’s premiere, and then a visit with Patten to get his reaction to seeing it for the first time. Two more featurettes are basically extended deleted scenes, one with a derby “super fan,” and the other spending a day with legendary derby bad girl Ann Calvello. A handful of other deleted scenes follow, along with the theatrical trailer. Finally, here’s a neat extra: On DVD-ROM, you can access and print out a bunch of trading cards featuring the colorful characters seen in the movie. Cool!

Diehard fans might be disappointed to learn that there’s not a lot of skating action in this movie. This is more about the decisions that get made before and after the bout, and not what happens on the track. Almost all of the game footage is not even of the game, but of fights breaking out between skaters. Patten expresses disappointment in this, saying he’s marketing entertainment, not hardcore violence. Ferrari, on the other hand, seems to encourage this behavior. Either way, the focus of Jam is all about what happens off the track, not on it.

Jam is definitely more “slice of life” than it is “sports action,” but that might give it cross-over appeal to those not obsessed with roller derby. For fans, know that this captures an era in the derby’s history that would otherwise be unknown—a time when our favorite sport almost didn’t exist at all, if not for a loyal few.

The Verdict

Not guilty, no matter who took the money. Jam on, friends.

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