Judge Brett Cullum feels like he's the victim of a bait-and-switch here, due to the lack of skimpy swimsuits in this demolition derby documentary—but he liked the disc anyhow.
"I am the Ayatollah of Rock 'N Roll-a!"—Speedo
Honestly, when I signed up to review this title I had no clue what it was about. I thought it would be a documentary on the Speedo swimsuit company, or something like that. Imagine my surprise when I got a film about a semi-professional demolition derby driver. This is the redneck American dream on film. A garage mechanic pursues glory smashing up cars, and finds out what love means. Part of the PBS Point of View series, it's definitely a neat documentary.
Facts of the Case
Speedo is a 2003 documentary about Ed "Speedo" Jager, who has found himself obsessed with a hobby. He participates in New Jersey demolition derbies, and spends all his free time working on cars to demolish. The film follows him during the 1999 season where he wins several regional titles—and also loses his wife of twenty years, who has had enough. It spans the ups and downs of his season, and follows him as he finds a new woman who shares his passion for destruction and automobiles. Basically, think Saturday Night Fever with a forty year old mechanic who rules the dirt track rather than the disco. Speedo is a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, Mountain Dew-drinking man who you can't help but love, because he's got a dream and he won't let go.
Every review I see of Speedo bills it as a love story, and they talk extensively about the depictions of Ed Jager and his search for real love away from his wife. Under the title, it's billed as "a demolition derby love story." I don't know what people see that I see differently, but it's not a movie about his wife or his new love. No, Speedo is a film about a man who loves cars and demolition derbies, and there's nothing else that would ever replace that. He's an okay father, and the love story is touching in its own way; however, in every frame of this film is a car, a driver, or a trophy. Not a woman, not a family, and certainly not his wife are anywhere to be found. The dream isn't to be the world's greatest dad, the best husband, or any of that. It's to grab that trophy, fill that room with awards, and celebrate your victory surrounded by Hooters girls. The essence of this man is his hobby, and it's how he defines himself no matter how anyone else sees him. The dream must be infectious. You get to see his son, who starts off as a punk rock singer, begin to aspire to be a demolition driver just like his dad. His new girlfriend Liz helps Speedo do some marketing and makes t-shirts for him. Even the filmmaker, Jesse Moss, seems to be enthralled with his subject (enough to follow him around through some really rough situations at the derby).
If you like documentaries, this is a quite solid one. I am amazed how much it reminds me of several reality shows that are successful right now. It could easily be considered a fleshed-out version of Monster Garage or American Chopper. The difference between a documentary and a reality television series is one of story and artistry. Here we follow Speedo for a couple of years in about an hour and fifteen minutes. Nothing is contrived, and there is no sense that it's forced to fit some kind of mold. What actually happens is what the filmmaker settles for, and he has edited things down for maximum impact. There is plenty of action footage of cars getting trashed, and it's a lot of fun to watch the drama of life unfold around the subject and his family.
The DVD is in full screen, and comes with the predictable stereo mix. Like most documentaries the film quality is questionable in some places where grain rears its head. Most of the derbies are at night, so that can be a problem as well. Jesse Moss is using a pretty high quality digital camera for his work, and it holds up well on the transfer. The sound mix is fine, with conversations quite clear and no real interference from music levels being too high. You get a nice commentary with the filmmaker and his subject. I wonder whether, if one of them was removed from the track, it would be more judgmental; but both men seem to have a deep respect for each other. Also included are some deleted scenes which are actually pretty cool. There's one I loved where we get to see a school bus destruction derby. Another shows Speedo's son winning his first attempt at his dad's occupation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Language is rough, and many people are going to find this whole scene a little too "white trash" for them. It's definitely up there with a documentary on tractor pull shows or amateur wrestling. But it's an awesome celebration of another lifestyle that you may or may not know much about. Still, some will be horrified at the injuries these guys inflict on each other. Sometimes you feel like you're watching a "very special episode" of Cops. And I still don't buy this whole "love" angle. Speedo does find a soul mate in Liz, and all seems to be fine with him and his sons. I wasn't elevated by the joyous rapture of the rays of light some people seem to see in this movie.
In the end Speedo finds Ed living out his dreams as he graduates to a higher level of competition. The story is about a man finding out that wishes do come true, even for a forty year old mechanic in Long Island. It's funny how we root for him to make it—and he perseveres, and does. It has the mark of a great documentary, because you walk away learning something without trying too hard to suss it all out.
Speedo the man and the movie are free to go demolish more Cadillacs and school buses. Docurama proves it is the only company dedicated to bringing the best of their genre to us in great packages. Everyone's free to go out and chase their dreams. Now where's my documentary on skimpy bathing suits?
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• Commentary by Filmmaker Jesse Moss and Ed "Speedo" Jager
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