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.
Meet the lovely ladies of A.R.R.G, the Ann Richards Roller Girls at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. Founded last year by Alison Chains and mentored by the legendary Cherry Chainsaw and several teammates from the Cherry Bombs, these girls are part of the first-ever school athletic junior derby team. This team is the pride of TXRD Lonestar (cheering on their mentors to the big win of last year's Calvello Cup), and is featured front and center on the Ann Richards School website.
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...
For my first Roller Review, I’m going to talk about Derby Girl by Shauna Cross. I just gave this book to my baby sister for her birthday as I try to convince her to join the roller derby and make my dream a sister act.
There’s something about good YA fiction that makes you want to be at that stage in your life again. You know the stage, where the world is full of possibility and you are the center of your own narration, and you just don’t believe it when your parents tell you that they listened to the Velvet Underground or that 20 years ago they dressed a lot like you do. This book had that in spades.
The novel tells the story of Bliss Cavendar, a sixteen-year-old stranded in the tiny town of Bodeen, Texas (a fake town, by the way, seemingly based in part on Brenham, home of Bluebell Ice Cream). Bliss’ mom wants her to be a pageant princess, but it’s a poor fit for the blue-haired indie-rock-loving misfit. One day, Bliss finds her bliss when she visits Austin and discovers the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls. She busts out her old Barbie skates and blows everyone’s socks off with her wheels of fire in tryouts, and the rest is history. Along the way she negotiates her relationship with her newfound crew, non-rollergirl best friend, fey band boy love interest, faded pageant glory mom, and sport-loving redneck dad.
There are two things that are obvious about the author when you read this book:
- She’s a derby insider. Even though there are some composites and switcheroos, the team names and skater names are real mostly drawn from LA and Austin teams. She even gives a little shoutout to her own derby alter ego, Maggie Mayhem. The book’s primary antagonist is Dinah Might, probably a nod to Dinah-Mite, one of the true bad motherfuckers of the Texas Rollergirls, widely credited with helping power the sport of flat-track derby into legit-ness.
- She is a homesick Texpat, and an Austinite specifically. Homegirl gets the details down to the last breakfast taco! I don’t know if this is something that would fall flat for other readers who aren’t from Austin, but her homesickness shines through and reflects on my own homesickness. It's like a love letter to my hometown, and I had a tiny squee moment when Bliss listens to my college roommate’s band. I had to put the book down every few chapters to pour out a drink for my “soul-mate city.” Oh, and from some of the references, I have a sneaking suspicion that the author went to my high school.
As someone with a few miles in the rearview mirror between me and my teenage self, I have to say a big fucking feminist thank you to Shauna for not making Bliss crawl back to that fucking lameass douche who cheats on her while he’s on tour. In fact, thank you for Malice’s advice to keep away from boys in bands. Boys come and go, but if you play your cards right, you’ll have a posse to circle the wagons around you when you need to break out the caution tape and quarantine off a grade-A d-bag. This is something that girls in Austin, my baby sister included, learn the hard way (a big part of why I’m bringing her the gospel of roller derby). I was 25 with a divorce under my studded belt before I fully learned this lesson. And even then, I guess I didn’t totally learn it because I married a second musician; this one turned out better though
All told, I give this book 8 wheels. (I totally need a graphic for that!) It’s not Proust, but it’s not supposed to be—it’s a book I wish had been around when I was 16, and a delicious little snack of a summer read. What it lacks in substance, it makes up for in “naustalgia” and quirky-teen empowerment.