Thursday, June 30, 2011

Next month's the 40th anniversary of On Any Sunday. So here's my unscientific list of the best (and worst) bike films of all time...

It’s not surprising that the list of the best motorcycle movies of all time includes clusters of films made between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and again from 1995 to 2005. Those were the two periods in which postwar motorcycle sales – and interest in the sport of motorcycling – peaked.

1. On Any Sunday (1971) Documentary filmmaker Bruce Brown was a surfer who made the classic ‘60s surf-doc “Endless Summer”. Commercial success is rare in documentary films, but revenues from that one hit allowed Brown to retire young. He spent much of his time riding dirt bikes in California. Eventually he realized that bike racing was a perfect subject for another film. With investment from Steve McQueen, Brown’s camera crews followed AMA Grand National contender Mert Lawwill and versatile dirt racer Malcolm Smith, with cameos from McQueen himself. Flat out the best documentary film ever on the subject of motorcycle racing. July 28 marks the 40th anniversary of On Any Sunday's release, so get it in your Netflix queue now and plan a '70s theme party with lots of LSD and unprotected sex.

2. Easy Rider (1969) This film was written and produced by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, who also starred in it. They play a pair of hippies who ride their choppers from L.A. to New Orleans. Along the way, they meet a cast of characters that includes an ACLU lawyer played by an unheralded Jack Nicholson.
The film was a true road movie, as the crew followed Fonda and Hopper (both avid riders in real life) as they crossed the American west picking film locations on the spur of the moment. The narrative brilliantly captured the country’s Vietnam-era malaise, and Hopper was acclaimed as the best new director at the Cannes Film Festival. Fonda’s “Captain America” chopper became an American icon. Interestingly, the bike disappeared after the film was completed.

3. Electra Glide in Blue (1973) Half road film, half film noir, this cult classic tells the story of a vertically-challenged motorcycle cop (played by Robert Blake, whose real life was also plenty ‘noir’). Blake’s character, “Big John”, wants to get off his bike and become a detective so he can work with his brain and not “sit on my ass getting calluses.” This was the only film James Guercio ever directed; he’s better known as a Grammy Award-winning producer, composer, and performer who worked with the jazz-fusion bands Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Chicago.

4. Dust to Glory (2005) If the name Dana Brown rings a bell, it’s because he’s Bruce “On Any Sunday” Brown’s son. Following in his dad’s footsteps, Dana made this documentary about the Baja 1000 desert race in Mexico. The race is for cars and trucks as well as motorcycles but in the best family tradition, the emphasis is on motorcycle racer “Mouse” McCoy. Unlike his dad, Dana had access to 55(!) cameras and four helicopters, allowing him to capture the best footage ever of this epic race. Warning: Don’t watch this film unless you have been inoculated against the racing bug. The Baja 1000 is one of the last races that’s open to anyone and has classes allowing almost any vehicle to compete, so you won’t have the “I don’t have a racing license,” or the “My bike’s not legal for the event” excuses!

5. Continental Circus (1969) Continental Circus documents a season in Grand Prix racing. This classic bit of cinema-verite is hard to find but well worth looking for. It was originally made in French by producer-director Jerome Laperrousaz, but it can also be found with English voice-over narration.
Laperrousaz follows a charismatic Australian privateer named Jack Findlay. The film brilliantly captures the end of an era – the last time when an independent racer with a couple of bikes slung in the back of his van could mix it up with world champions like Giacomo Agostini. Jack travels from country to country, sleeping in a tent at the track, and living from prize check to prize check. A trippy rock score reinforces the oh-so-‘60s vibe. This is Woodstock, with gasoline instead of acid and plaster casts instead of long hair.

6. World’s Fastest Indian (2005) This film was written and directed by Roger Donaldson. It is based on a true story about Bert Munro, an eccentric New Zealander who traveled to the Bonneville Salt Flats in order to prove that he had the world’s fastest Indian motorcycle. Along the way Munro (played by Anthony Hopkins) meets a cast of characters nearly as charming and offbeat as he is.

7. Crusty Demons of Dirt (1995) In the early ‘90s the aptly named Fleshwound Films company – which had already made a couple of successful extreme snowboarding videos – turned its cameras on motorcyclists in the deserts of SoCal and Nevada. Fleshwound spent two years filming established Supercross stars like Jeremy McGrath and Jeff Emig, as well as then-unknown freeriders like Brian Deegan , Mike Metzger and long-jump lunatic Seth Enslow. They set their footage to an indie-thrashmetal soundtrack and created a video that launched the whole “freeride” FMX phenomenon.

8. The Long Way ‘Round (2004)
This was filmed for a BBC “reality television” series. Real motorcycle globetrotters (who ride without a support truck and helicopter assistance) rolled their eyes at the thought of two actors riding across Eurasia and America for the cameras. However, once they got underway, Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Trainspotting) and his sidekick Charlie Boorman quickly charmed their way past even the most cynical viewers. It’s great, escapist fun.

9. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) Based on Che Guevara’s own account of his journey through Latin America on an old Norton. If you’re watching it as a motorcyclist and not a budding communist, you’ll probably find the second half of the film, after Che abandons his bike, to be less entertaining than the first half. However, intelligent direction by Brazilian director Walter Salles and a typically fine performance by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal made this film a darling of awards juries everywhere. It even won an Oscar for Best Original Song, “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” by composer Jorge Drexler.

10. One Man's Island (2003)
Call me self-serving but I stand by this film and story it tells. If documentaries like On Any Sunday or Dust to Glory are sweeping, One Man’s Island is intimate and intensely personal. Canadian independent director Peter Riddihough spent the better part of a year following an ordinary rider (yes, me) who quit his job and sold all his possessions in order to move to the Isle of Man and race in the famous TT. It’s a film about motorcycle racing that non-racers can also appreciate since, at its heart, it’s a story about the pursuit of dreams.

What about the worst motorcycle movies of all time?

On one hand it’s easy to compile a list of terrible bike flicks – after all, the list of bad motorcycle movies is almost identical to the list of all motorcycle movies. The good ones are the exceptions.
On the other hand, with so many real stinkers to choose from, narrowing the field to the ten worst is tricky. Some of them are so bad they’re almost amusing. (Note that I said “almost”– watching them is still downright painful.) The following ten is a strictly personal list including films that are about motorcycling, as well as a few films in which bikes play notably lame supporting roles.

1. The Wild One (1953) This film was almost certainly the most influential motorcycle movie of all time – unfortunately it influenced America to hate and fear motorcyclists! Laszlo Benedek directed a star-studded cast including Lee Marvin and, of course, Marlon Brando.
Thanks to Brando, this movie’s still in every Blockbuster store but don’t kid yourself – it’s as dated as stale cheese. The outlaw bikers come across more like disaffected artists from the Left Bank in Paris and as for Brando’s performance… let’s just say that it’s no “On the Waterfront.” Benedek made the film shortly after emigrating from Europe. Once he was more settled in California, he was a solid Emmy contender as a TV director, but this movie stinks!

2. No Limit (1936) This movie was a huge hit in prewar Britain and definitely consolidated the TT’s status as the world’s most important motorcycle race. It starred George Formby, who was a ukelele-playing vaudeville star and enormously popular as a live performer. He plays a speed demon determined to win the TT on a motorcycle of his own design. How this movie managed to become a box office success and survive to this day on video is a complete mystery. The race action is almost comically bloodthirsty, Formby’s off-key singing grates on your ears, and as an actor he made Stan Laurel look like Sir Laurence Olivier.

3. The Wild Angels (1966) Saying that this film is about a couple of Hells Angels facing off against the cops is misleading, as there’s practically no plot. That was one of its many flaws, which prompted film critic Christopher Null to call it “truly one of the most awful films ever made.” It’s perhaps even more tragic in that many of the people involved had real talent and/or Hollywood Boulevard street cred. The movie was directed by B-movie “auteur” Roger Corman. His (massive) oeuvre is now being reappraised by serious film critics. Peter Bogdanovich worked on the screenplay. Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Nancy Sinatra starred in it. The film opened at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Don’t kid yourself: none of that comes close to saving it.

4. The Hellcats (1967) “Motorcycle mamas on a highway to Hell!” “Leather on the outside... All woman on the inside!” This movie was luridly promoted as the story of a bike gang run by women. It’s notable mainly for its comically bad post-production; in some shots motorcycles approach in utter silence, while other scenes with no bikes have loud motor sound effects. Director Robert Slatzer had a thankfully brief career as a cheap, exploitive sensationalist. Sadly it didn’t end soon enough to protect the world from “Hellcats.”

5. Biker BoyZ (2003) For the last decade at least, the whole urban/African-American/outlaw street-racing scene has been rich fodder for a great action film… too bad no one has made it. Real street racers will marvel at the scene in which a couple of turbo- and nitrous-modified Hayabusas stage a drag race on a gravel road.

6. Torque (2004) Another take on the street-racing scene, this time complicated by the tired old framed-for-murder plot device. Curiously, director Joseph Kahn came to this project having done almost nothing but Britney Spears videos.

7. Supercross (2005) The colorful world of professional Supercross racing forms the backdrop for this limping story in which two brothers have a falling out. They become bitter rivals before hardship brings them back together. Cue: audience rolls eyes.
         This movie is the only directorial effort by Steve Boyum, an established Hollywood stunt coordinator. It has quite possibly the least-talented cast and crew in the history of cinema, but it’s Boyum himself who’s most to blame for its box office failure. Real supercross is so spectacular that it doesn’t need stunts at all – let alone a stunt coordinator as director. Someone capable of telling a compelling story could probably make a great movie about this sport but, the way Hollywood works, Supercross’s flop will make it impossible to pitch another SX script for at least a decade.

8. I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990)
By day it’s a Norton sitting quietly in a garage. But by night it is possessed by a demon and emerges to drink the blood of anyone foolish enough to act in this film, er, wait a minute, I meant to write “walk around Birmingham after dark”. Plenty of splattered gore and – I’m not making this up – a talking turd. Even stranger than that last tidbit is the fact that director Dirk Campbell was previously known as the writer-director of Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Surely those are the two most divergent films ever made by a single person.

9. Special industry award: American Chopper (c. 2005) No one was more surprised than the Discovery Channel when the Teutels’ dysfunctional family schtick became the network’s most-watched show. In short order it spawned a host of imitators. The real problem is that millions of Americans watch them and actually think, “This is real.” In fact, Hollywood screenwriters gotup in arms because the writers who work on such “reality” shows are paid far less than those who write for shows like “Lost” or even “Joey”.
Why, you might wonder, would reality TV even need writers? That’s a good question. In 2005, at least 1,200 members of the Writer’s Guild of America worked in the reality genre. Clearly they weren’t all writing hosts’ introductions and voice-over narration. You don’t suppose the Teutels’ tantrums are scripted?

10. Dopey-stunt award (tie):
Matrix Reloaded (2003) Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
The breathless advance promotion of both of these films emphasized the ludicrous claim that Carrie-Ann Moss and Tom Cruise both did their own stunts. If only that were true! Both would’ve been killed early in production and we would have been spared these tiresome sequels.
In fact, the Wachowski brothers’ signature “stunting” is mostly done in computerized post-production. That explains why real motorcyclists find Trinity’s Ducati ride through oncoming traffic to be visually spectacular but fundamentally unconvincing. At least Mission: Impossible’s old-school action film director John Woo still arranges for most of his stunts to be done in front of the camera. Real riders will note that Ethan’s tires change from knobbies (when he’s riding on dirt or gravel) to slicks (when he’s riding on pavement) in the same chase sequence. If the villain could simply patent those tires, he wouldn’t have to threaten the release of a deadly virus in order to hold the world for ransom.

1 comment:

  1. What about Terra Circa and Austin Vince's work? Long Way Round is utter crap and basically prima donna junk that was inspired by Vince and his crew who traveled the globe with no sponsorship, little money, and a lot of heart.