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Roller Derby meets Hollywood

KansasCityBomberOn October 2nd, Fox Searchlight will release WHIP IT, featuring Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristin Wiig and Juliette Lewis. (Daniel Stern, utterer of a favorite movie line, “If hate were people, I’d be China,” makes the crossover to father figure, making me feel both old and comfortable somehow.) Although not a Mark Mothersbaugh bio-pic, as the title might imply,  it is the much-anticipated directorial debut of Drew Barrymore.  However, despite all of the glitter and fuss, the real star of the movie is…roller derby.

WHIP IT, based on the 2007 novel “Derby Girl” by Shauna Cross (aka Maggie Mayhem) formerly of the L.A. Derby Dolls, is a fictionalized account of experiences skating with the Texas Rollergirls, nicely wrapped in teen-vs-parent-angst-plus-rock-‘n-roll-love story. Got that?

We’ve come to expect that any sport depicted in a movie is a crapshoot at best. (Crapshooting depicted in movies, on the other hand, is usually awesome.) Basketball games are decided by single 3-pointers at the buzzer; football games are played at night, in the mud, in slow motion; baseball games are merely metaphors for the American experience. Even “Grand Prix,” the best racing film ever, suffers interminable plot lines in between awe-inspiring F-1 footage.  However, no sport has suffered more free-handed artistic license by Hollywood visionaries than roller derby - deservedly so, owing to its admittedly checkered past. WHIP IT gives modern roller derby its due, but let’s peer into derby’s dirty celluloid past. What could be better that a rainy afternoon roller derby film fest! Here’s a list to keep handy.

The Fireball, 1950 Mickey Rooney, Pat O’Brien, Marilyn Monroe) An obvious rainy day choice – Mickey Rooney on roller skates.  Mickey is Johnny Casar, an orphan who runs away and makes it big in roller derby, only to be stricken down by polio. Laugh, cry! Have it all in this film! Tough film to find, so keep your eyes peeled on those movie channels.

Unholy Rollers, 1972 (Claudia Jennings, produced by Roger Corman). This B movie follows Karen, a cannery worker who wants more out of life. And where do you get more? Roller derby! Karen becomes a star, makes enemies along the way, and for a skinny kid who can’t skate, that’s quite an accomplishment! Clips on YouTube, full film tougher to find (and to watch).

Kansas City Bomber, 1972 (Raquel Welch, Kevin McCarthy). The image of Raquel Welch as K.C. Starr is iconic, while the film itself…not so much. Once again, our heroine is a roller derby star embroiled in turmoil - her team, her family and her love life. Lucky for us, she looks fantastic and the derby action is really entertaining. Old school derby fans will recognize stars on the track. Notice the odd mishmash of roller derby and rollergames played out on the track. Available on DVD.

Rollerball, 1975 (James Caan, John Hausman) While I admit that Rollerball is to roller derby what Gwar is to smooth jazz, I would be remiss in leaving it off of this list. James Caan as Jonathan E. takes the skating protagonist from spunky go-getter to Orwellian hero, fighting (literally) for his life. Most of us in derby consider every aspect of the sport to be life-defining and culturally relevant. Rollerball is the game we’re playing in our head. Aren’t you glad you’re on the outside? Available on DVD.

Whip It, 2009 (Ellen Page et al, see above) Ellen Page, as Bliss Cavender, forced by her mother to participate in the beauty pageant circuit, finds her true calling in banked track roller derby as Babe Ruthless. The tag line, “Be your own hero” accurately projects modern roller derby’s DIY ethic and self-empowering stance. Go for the derby; stay for the story (and the soundtrack). In theaters October 2nd.

You hear plenty from today’s skaters that modern roller derby is real, different than the past, not an assault on anyone’s intelligence. I wholeheartedly agree, and am the first in line to spout the laundry list of facts and figures supporting our legitimacy.  But turning our back on the old days of derby isn’t real either. It’s akin to locking crazy Aunt Ethel on the back porch because she’s embarrassing. We have to admit, distant or not, we’re related. Let’s have some fun.

This week’s photo: Raquel Welch as K.C Carr (Kansas City Bomber, 1972)

This week’s video: WHIP IT trailer. See it. Then see some live roller derby!
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