Watching these documentaries made Judge Clark Douglas feel very weak. Which, of course, he is.
"I eat the way I do, I train the way I do, to look a certain way. That to me is bodybuilding."—David Pulcinella
Just before his 40th birthday, David Pulcinella decided to end his seven-year retirement and re-enter the sport of competitive bodybuilding. His ultimate goal was to compete in and win the Delaware bodybuilding championship, a very lofty goal for someone who had been out of the sport for such a lengthy period of time. David's brother, Mike Pulcinella, picked up a camcorder and decided to chronicle David's journey from start to finish. The project was only intended to be made into a home video for the Pulcinella family, but what transpired seemed so dramatically compelling that Mike decided to turn the events into a documentary.
That documentary is called Raising the Bar, an in-depth look at the world of bodybuilding and one man's journey through the personal and public challenges of the sport. To a lesser degree, we also follow the journey of David's girlfriend, Jenn Emig, who is competing in the female figure competition of the bodybuilding championship. We get a truly comprehensive look at the world of bodybuilding, everything from workout routines to diet decisions to competition strategies. Aside from Pumping Iron, there really haven't been too many examinations of the sport, particularly focusing on such an amateur level. Thus, Raising the Bar may be quite revealing to those who know very little about the sport and undoubtedly of great interest to those who do know a lot about it.
Many of the most interesting portions of Raising the Bar are the small personal moments. There are some particularly revealing scenes with Mike and David's father (a former bodybuilder himself), who criticizes David for becoming a "fanatic" about the sport. He also offers some surprising insight about what it was like to bodybuild in the 1950s, when it was not considered normal behavior. Apparently, you could be kicked off of a high school football team in the 1950s if the coaches caught you bodybuilding. Such candid sequences appear with some regularity, much to the documentary's benefit.
Unfortunately, at 107 minutes, Raising the Bar feels considerably too long. There's easily enough material here for a compelling one-hour television special, but there seems to be a whole lot of padding. There are quite a few lengthy montage sequences that add little to the proceedings and could have easily been excised. In addition, the video quality is pretty miserable. That's understandable, considering that the whole thing was made with a camcorder, but it still looks quite rotten. Sound isn't much better, with a good chunk of dialogue being drowned out by background noise. Thankfully, Mike provides subtitles for these scenes.
Raising the Bar was a minor cult hit within the small bodybuilding community, so Mike decided to make a sequel, aptly titled Raising the Bar 2. After winning the Delaware championship twice, David decided to make the attempt to turn pro. Raising the Bar 2 quickly updates us on what has been going on in David's life. The documentary does repeat just a little bit of the material from Raising the Bar, but mostly it attempts to dig into different elements of bodybuilding that weren't discussed in the first film.
Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind when watching Raising the Bar 2 is, "Hey, Mike got a better camera!" Picture quality is absolutely better on Raising the Bar 2, which really makes a significant difference in the overall enjoyability of the film. Sound is a bit better, but there are still quite a few dialogue sequences obscured by sound effects. Once again, subtitles are provided. This still feels very much like an amateur production, but the difference is noteworthy.
Aside from the noticeable improvement on the technical end, the film itself has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Raising the Bar. The candid personal moments (including some tense family struggles) remain the most interesting moments, the bodybuilding scenes are informative, and there are a number of montages that could have been cut (perhaps not quite as many as in the first film). However, Raising the Bar has a slightly "larger" feel, partially because Mike was granted exclusive backstage access to the 2006 Masters Nationals in Pittsburgh.
There's a lot of rock music in both films, some of which is by well-known artists such as Lenny Kravitz and Elton John (not to mention a rather amusing entry from the Oliver! soundtrack). The legal rights to some of these songs are pending, and Mike Pulcinella is currently working with a composer on getting replacement cues for the rest of the songs. He is also currently working on Raising the Bar 3, which will continue to examine the world of bodybuilding while following David Pulcinella's personal journey.
Due to the heavy level of "filler" within both Raising the
Bar films, this set will probably not be of significant interest to those
outside the bodybuilding community. However, once Raising the Bar 3 is
completed, Mike plans to use footage from all three films to create a single,
comprehensive documentary. That's an excellent idea, because there's certainly
some revealing and engaging material included in both of these documentaries
that would be of interest to all sorts of viewers. I suspect that this
forthcoming documentary will be recommendable to the average viewer, but I can't
quite say that about these two uncut Raising the Bar films. They're
certainly interesting at times, but I would only recommend them to those who
have an interest in bodybuilding and/or footage of lots of immensely muscular
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mike Pulcinella Video Productions
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