While a lot of people have forgotten about roller derby or remember it only as a distant blip on the radar of oddball seventies pop culture, a resurgence in popularity has been putting the sport back in the public eye over the years. Lainy Bagwell and Lacey Leavitt film, Blood On The Flat Track does a pretty solid job of putting into perspective why it's gaining momentum and what drives the girls who compete on the various teams that make up the various leagues do what they do. The focus here is on the ladies who complete in the Rat City Rollers league in Seattle, Washington.
As you'd guess, the movie documents the league's humble beginnings and then traces them to where they're at now. Attendance is up, more girls are wanting to join up and compete, and the bouts are now happening at a larger arena space after they outgrew the smaller space where they got their start. There are interviews here with plenty of the various participants, they all come from different backgrounds and are in the sport for different reasons. Some are younger, some are older, some have kids, some do not. Some are gay, some are straight, and they all seem to really enjoy themselves. Hearing the people who actually get out there night after night and work as hard as they do share their reasons for doing so and their experiences proves to be pretty interesting stuff and on this level the film almost becomes a collection of mini-biographies.
Of course, you wouldn't want to watch an hour and a half of talking head after talking head, even if the subject matter is interesting, and so we get plenty of great clips of the various matches that the league has held. Sometimes it's a simple clip, just explaining what the sport is all about, how it works, what the rules are and how certain ladies excel in different aspects of it, other times it's clips showing that yes, this sport can be dangerous sometimes and that, yes, sometimes these girls do get hurt pretty bad.
The documentary touches on the sexist aspect of the sport and the way that it can sometimes be marketed. It's not a secret that roller derby tends to attract a lot of guys simply because it lets them ogle a lot of really well built women zipping around and pummeling each other and there's certainly a sexiness to that which seems to appeal to a male audience. Denying that aspect of it would be glossing over the truth, and hey, biology is biology, there's nothing wrong with liking the whole roller girl look. What the documentary rightfully points out, however, is that a lot of the attendees who initially start coming to matches simply to watch hot girls on roller-skates wind up very quickly appreciating the athleticism and competitive nature of the sport.
The film moves at a good pace. The interviews, which cut back and forth between the various participants, do a good job of fleshing out some of the 'faces behind the sport' while the editing and soundtrack (heavy on The Dirtbombs and rightly so, it just fits) compliment the clips from the matches really well. This was obviously a labor of love for all involved, in front of and behind the camera, and while it was obviously made with a low budget, the enthusiasm for the sport makes it easy to overlook a few of the rough edges. The focus on the social side of the sport is important and key to the documentary's success, as it really helps to explain the appeal of the sport and of the movement. Further focus on the do-it-yourself aspect of how this league got started and how the athletes themselves often wear many hats by helping to coordinate bouts, book space, sell tickets and market the matches sure does go a long way towards allowing us to understand how much work is involved in all of this, as well as how much fun it can all be.
Blood On The Flat Track was shot on video so the clarity isn't going to blow you away, but aside from the fact that the fullframe transfer is (not surprisingly) interlaced, the image quality is perfectly acceptable. Detail may vary from scene to scene - the interview scenes, which were shot under decent conditions, tend to look better than the roller derby clips, which weren't shot under the most ideal of circumstances - but everything is perfectly watchable here. Color reproduction looks fine and skin tones look lifelike and natural. This isn't a reference quality picture, but given the content and the way that the feature was made, it doesn't really need to be.
The only audio track on the disc is an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track, no alternate language dubs or subtitles are provided. Dialogue during the interview clips is well balanced and free of any hiss or distortion and the people who appear in front of the camera are generally always easy to understand. The levels are well balanced and, just as it was with the video, while nothing here will floor you, the mix is certainly acceptable enough.
Strand has done a nice job in the extra features department starting with a commentary from the two directors and a few of the roller girls involved in the film. It's a decent track that not only details the making of the movie but allows the girls to explain what it was like making the picture, how they were involved in the league and the movie, and how they feel about the picture upon watching it in retrospect. There's a fair bit of joking around but it's a fairly informative track aside from that and it allows the co-directors to explain just how much work went into getting this project finished.
There are also two featurettes included here, the first of which is The League Today (Where Are They Now?) (12:00) which is a quick follow up to the feature that shows the new, larger venue that the league has moved to and features some interviews with many of the current rollergirls in the league who explain why they do what they do. The second featurette, Derby Ink: The Tattoos Of The Roller Girls (1:46) is just a quick look at some of the tattoos that adorn the ladies of the league, some of whom explain what they mean and why they got them.
Rounding out the extras is a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Strand titles, menus and chapter stops.
An interesting look at the rise in popularity that roller derby has been experiencing over the last half a decade or so, Blood On The Flat Track shows in no uncertain terms that as flashy as some of the teams might be, there's a very real sport here. These girls work hard at what they do and anyone who has attended a match knows that the matches are exciting, fast paced and extremely competitive. If you've ever wondered what compels someone to lace up their skates and zip around in a circle, knocking competitors to and fro, give this disc a spin, it's interesting stuff and comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.