I first fell in love with roller derby back in the early 1980s, when its popularity was waning. Every Saturday morning I would watch broadcasts of the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, many of them repeats of bouts from the 1970s, as they whipped around the banked track, beating the hell out of whatever team they were up against. By the time I got to college, roller derby had lapsed into even greater obscurity, until finally it just sort of lingered in a sad limbo of almost nonexistence (only to be recently resurrected in the form of all-women leagues), and I moved on with my life. But even after many years of not watching the incredible Ralphie Valladeres, Skinny Gwen Miller or the ruthless Jackson Brothers, there has always been a special place for roller derby in my heart. So it was with mixed feelings that I watched the 1971 documentary Derby, an unsentimental, cinema verité glimpse behind the magical curtain of roller derby.
Produced by William Richert and directed by Robert Kaylor, Derby was supposed to be a documentary about roller derby, but the film quickly became something else when Mike Snell came on the scene. Snell was a twenty-something factory worker at a tire plant in Dayton, with dreams of becoming the next big superstar of roller derby. Early on in the filming of Derby, Richert and Kaylor met Snell, who is introduced in the film early on when he asks Charlie O'Connell of the San Francisco Bay Bombers how he can break into the sport. The rest of the movie cuts back and forth between O'Connell, a star of roller derby, as he philosophizes about the sport, some incredible matches, and Snell as he goes about pursuing his dream. This focus on Snell is what gives Derby most of its raw soul, but it is also something of a distraction, as Snell comes across like a self-absorbed asshole. Snell goes from being annoying to unpleasant faster than any of the skaters move around the track, and while he makes for an interesting subject in some regards, a little bit of him goes a long way, and there's too much of him, making it difficult at times to watch the movie. And ultimately, Derby is as much about Snell as it is roller derby, as Kaylor peels back the layers of working class Americana during the Vietnam War, and examines the aspirations of blue collar nobody determined to be a somebody.
The problem with Derby is that Snell himself is not the sort of person you want to watch for any extended amount of time. I understand and appreciate what Kaylor and Richert were going for, and I think they find success, but it doesn't change the fact that the more you watch Snell, the less you like him, and during the brief glimpses of actual roller derby skaters, you can't help but wonder what their stories are. It is easy to see why roller derby fans didn't like Derby, while at the same time it is easy to see why film lovers did.
Honestly, I didn't much care for Derby when I first watched it, and to be honest, my opinion of the movie itself hasn't really changed much. At the same time, the DVD features two separate audio commentaries, one with Kaylor and the other Richert, and this is one of those rare occasions where I found myself appreciating the movie much more while listening to the commentaries. I still have mixed feelings about the documentary itself--I really love the roller derby sequences and the behind the scenes of the sport, but Snell gets on my nerves. It was easier and more entertaining watching Derby twice, listening to the audio commentaries, than it was once without.
Derby is presented in 1.33:1 full screen. The transfer is from a 35 millimeter blow up of the 16 millimeter print, and the picture itself is grainy, with some noticeable blemishes on the print. But the transfer itself is good, despite the less than pristine look of the source.
Derby is presented in Dolby Digital Mono in English. The sound levels from the film itself are a bit all over the place, and anyone looking for an incredible audio experience should go elsewhere.
As I said before, Derby is more enjoyable with either of the two audio commentaries playing. Both Richert and Kaylor offer some great insight into the production of the film, including how they managed to shoot such an intimate documentary in which so many of the people are so candid in front of the camera. But the real treat of the disc is Max-Out, Kaylor's 1968 cinema verité short film about an ex-convict hustling to survive in New York City. Mel Rivers essentially stars as himself, play a criminal just released from Riker's Island that can't seem to make things work for himself. The cast is made up almost exclusively of ex-cons, including Charles McGregor, who will be recognizable to fans of Super Fly as the ill-fated Fat Freddy. Max-Out runs just over forty minutes, but it is an incredible film that is both raw and emotionally deep, recalling the gritty reality of John Cassavetes as well as the similar bold realism displayed in Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep nearly a decade later. There is also an optional audio commentary by Kaylor that is incredible. And finally, there is a collection of trailers for movies available from Code Red DVD. Normally I don't make mention of trailers, but this collection of B-movie schlock, including such forgotten classics as Choke Canyon and Trapped, is priceless.
Honestly, the best recommendation I can give Derby is that it is worth checking out, perhaps as a rental. Max-Out, on the other hand, is a film worth owning. I don't think I've ever recommended a DVD for purchase based on the bonus material, but if I ever were to do it, it would probably be this disc.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]