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"A lot of people just see it as a very fun and entertaining thing to do, without realizing how very physical it is. And yes, you can get hurt. Today we have one broken wrist, a broken tailbone, two broken ankles, a broken leg and a broken tooth. Within a short amount of time."
DVD ReviewIt is an old school, full-contact sport that eventually fell out of favor, yet decades later was successfully revived in Austin, TX by a group of punky, tattooed women. The sport is roller derby, and in Bob Ray's thrill-ride of a documentary Hell On Wheels, he chronicles the rise and near fall, as attitudes, egos, ownership, and pride threatened to kill the sport before it was properly reborn. Over the course of three turbulent years, Ray was privy to the birth of the initially loose-knit group known as Bad Girl Good Woman, whose members formed the core of the only women's roller derby league in the U.S. in late 2001, and eventually all of the fragmentation that comes with it.
If you recall the thirteen-episode 2006 A&E reality series Rollergirls (which I'm sure you don't since I think I was the only one that watched it), it was all about the Texas Roller Derby league, and in Hell On Wheels we get to see what went on just before all of that took place. In some ways it's a prequel of sorts, and you'll spy familiar faces like Sarah Luna (Lunachick) and Ellie Kenworth (Clownsmack)—and did I catch a fleeting glimpse of Punky Bruiser? But it's all about the intricacies in the formation of the league, and then the disintegration that forced a second rebirth and a rival league.
The familiar teams are there—The Holy Rollers, The Hellcats, The Rhinestone Cowgirls, and The Putas Del Fuegos—but here it's back in the old days, before the sport eventually moved to a banked track (which does happen near the end of this doc), and it is really the story of a group of strong-willed and independent female skaters trying to carve out and reinvent this entertainingly raucous sport from the ground up.
It's kind of sad to see how the rigors of incorporation hammer a big ol' wedge between those now in charge and those who skate, and how what started as a group of like-minded and self-described loners looking to have fun evolved and expanded into a popular attraction, but it is tarnished by an array of behind the scenes moments that became a subculture of infighting and mistrust. Bob Ray's cameras are there for it all over three years, at "council" meetings, practices and get-togethers, and it's easy to notice the cracks forming before those involved really begin to realize that perhaps it is all going terribly off the rails amidst a bevy of broken bones, as well as a tragic suicide of one of the skaters.
Part wrestling theatrics/part adrenaline release/part sexy entertainment (though we're told there's a solid line between slutty and sexy), Bob Ray reminds us that the reinvented roller derby league in Austin came to be known as the pioneers in a national revival of the sport. With Hell On Wheels, the sweaty truth behind how much work went into getting the leagues formed and organized is actually impressive, especially given the volatile collision of some of the personalities involved. It's certainly was a rocky road, but it is exciting to see the process unfold.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Like the women in Austin's roller derby inner circle, the 1.66:1 nonanamorphic is pretty rough and tumble. At its best, the image quality falls just below average, with colors that are fairly drab. There's plenty of detritus such as aliasing (at one point the slats on a window shutter seems to move like a conveyor belt), and many of the practices and council meetings are excessively blocky.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: Nothing fancy, just a fairly plain 2.0 stereo track. Voices are generally clear, though at certain times there are forced subtitles due to background noise or simply poor recording conditions. There is some distortion at times, especially when there's a lot of screaming or shouting. The good news, however, is that the music—including numerous tracks by ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and a whopper of theme song from USS Friendship—fares much better than dialogue, and is delivered
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
41 Deleted Scenes
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by Bob Ray, Werner Cambell, Bad Girl Good Woman, Texas Roller Girls
Extras Review: There's a whole lot of extras crammed onto one disc, including three commentary tracks. The first features director Bob Ray and producer Werner Cambell, and of the three this is the one where the most salient production info comes from. Both Ray and Cambell are chatty rascals, and their content filled in a lot of background, if your interests extend beyond the scope of the documentary itself. The other two tracks are boisterous, but certainly a bit less formal, with one featuring the main women of Bad Girl Good Woman, and the other the split off faction of the Texas Roller Girls. The novelty of having opposing sides deliver commentaries does shed a little light on the personal riffs, but the tracks themselves are best sampled in small doses.
A block of 41 deleted scenes (01h:48m:31s) clocks in longer than the main doc, and cover everything from a broken tooth to a player quitting and then returning to assorted bout coverage that didn't make the final cut. Some of the scenes are not completely assembled, and in more than a few cases they're in rough format, and have incomplete audio and/or no color correction.
A pair of hard rocking music videos—USS Friendship's Rollergirls (03m:36s) and Nashville Pussy's Say Something Nasty (04m:49s)—along with film's theatrical trailer round out the supplements. The disc is cut into 32 chapters, and does not feature any optional subtitles.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsIt may help if you like the resurgence of roller derby going into this, and if you appreciated the television series Rollergirls then this is easily required viewing. Because this is where the rebirth began. There's all sorts of drama and infighting throughout the evolution of the Austin roller derby scene, and amidst all of the broken bones and bruised friendships, it remains not just wildly entertaining, but downright impressive.
The image transfer is a bit coarse, but that seems somehow appropriate.
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