After taking a whirl on the banked track, I was excited to finally get to watch a bout up close and in person. After struggling to just keep myself upright for two hours with a year of skating under my belt, the idea of people actually freaking playing on the banked track was incomprehensible. I've heard a lot about banked track--that it's faster, it's less strategic, there's less hitting, there's no stopped-pack or reversing--but it's all hearsay. I thought back to a phone conversation I had with a friend after she had just seen her first banked track bout. I asked her how she liked it. "It was alright," she sighed deeply "I'd like it better if they just followed the rules!"
When I moved away from Austin, roller derby was still a pretty new thing. Flat track was taking off, with the first national tournament (the Dust Devil in Tucson), and banked track was still being played at the original Thunderdome, as popular as ever with the run of A&E's Rollergirls. I went to a lot of bouts and drank a lot of Lone Star at Playland, but for reasons too complicated to get into here, I never managed to get to a banked track bout. Lady Luck smiled on me, though! Even though the Texas Rollergirls season is long over, the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls playoff coincided with my visit to town. Even better, a beginner banked track class was kind enough to allow me to drop in for a visit.
When I thought up the idea of the Roller Reviews, this was the review that I had in mind. In fact, full disclosure, it was watching this movie that inspired me to follow through on my roller derby dreams. Hell on Wheels is the definitive story of the DIY all-women roller derby revolution. No question.
When this movie came out, I was a little surprised. Not surprised that there was a movie about roller derby, but surprised that it hadn't come out already. The film was in production what felt like forever, and I could have sworn it was debuted at SXSW as early as 2005. Whatever time it took CrashCam Films to put the film together, it was worth the wait. A friend of mine described it beautifully: it was like a story about raw capitalism purified by a workers' revolt.
Indeed it was. I don't think that Bob Ray could have ever known what he was sitting on when he started filming. From the very beginning, everyone knew that an all-girl roller derby would be a sort of "hell yeah" fun time sensation - definitely the kind of stuff Austinites eat up like migas. But in the early days at Jackalope and Casino el Camino, with "Devil Dan" Policarpo dreaming of flaming bears on unicycles, there's no way that they could have foretold what this would have become. But that's not even the start of it!
With the exception of maybe Grizzly Man, this is by far the documentary with the most edge-of-your-seat suspense and drama that I have ever seen. Grizzly Man only wins because nobody gets eaten by a bear in Hell on Wheels, although they were filming during the untimely passing of Amber "Amberdiva" Stinson, and THREE totally gross-out tibia-fibula breaks (aka rubber foot hanging off the leg). What makes this documentary truly remarkable, though, is that it catches the most intimate moments of the Icarus-like rise and fall of the She-E-Os.
I am sure that you can paint a really unflattering picture of even Mother Theresa if you edit your film just so. My honest opinion is that even if he wanted to, Ray couldn't have hidden the ego and power hunger that fueled the early days of Austin roller derby. You just can't make this stuff up! This was a very brave film to make. Starting when it did, prior to the first exhibition bout, there was absolutely no way of knowing whether this would be just a bunch of chicks rolling around in uncertain circles and people getting drunk, or whether it would be a real documentary-worthy event. But by the grace of god and Texas women, Bob Ray ends up with a riveting story of ambition, betrayal, and greed. Most importantly for my purposes, this movie documents beyond the shadow of a doubt that many of the foremothers of the roller derby could. not. skate. And they nevertheless went on to be awesome athletes, which gives me hope and constant inspiration.
I have a lot of skate heroines, but in this film I think I identify most with Amy "Electra Blu" Sherman. Apart from her git-er-done work ethic on developing the flat track we know today from old banked-track diagrams, something about her sense of justice really speaks to me. You can see a look of "wtf" incredulity on her face as Anya "Hot Lips Dolly" Jack nurses what appears to be a huge margarita and slurs about how they are the "She-C-Os" and everyone is going to make lots of money. I've seen that "crazy bitch" glint in someone's eyes, and I've been the one cutting my eyes away in vicarious embarrassment for the person I'm talking to. You can see Electra trying hard not to look at the camera in a Jim Halpert-like wacky take, and I was just like "oh I feel you sister." She and Laurie "The Wrench" Rourke really shine as the ones who rallied the skaters to take control over the business of roller derby. The bad blood has since subsided, but the sport never looked back.
In fact, it was precisely because the original incarnation was so poorly run and so susceptible to strong-willed spotlight hounds (first Devil Dan, then She-E-Os) that the derby we know today is so successful. Irony of ironies, the suit TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls brought in advised them to do what the skaters who would become the Texas Rollergirls had demanded: make the league by the skaters, for the skaters.
I don't want to go into too much detail because the movie is so great and has so many suspenseful moments that you just need to see it for yourself. Rating: Eight wheels. Plus a grand slam. This movie is one of my favorites. Not just favorite roller derby movie or favorite documentary - favorite movie, period.
In fact, I just discovered that Bob Ray's Down & Dirty Austin Film Tour will be passing through town on my birthday, so I know what I'm doing to celebrate. And apparently the DVD has some really awesome special features, so if you want to know what to get me for my birthday...