It was Damon Runyon who, after observing a Miami audience delight in the occasional pileups and collisions of skaters at a roller derby race, suggested to the league's founder and honcho Leo Seltzer that roughhousing should become integral to the sport. That was in the 30s. Thirty-five years later, violence and showboating were embedded in the sport, aligning it with rigged spectacle like professional wrestling and Harlem Globetrotters games, though derby races retained more respect for honest competition. By 1970, Leo's son Jerry had taken over ownership of the Roller Derby league, which had ballooned in popularity over the preceding decades thanks to its widespread televisation and the persistent national touring of popular teams like the San Francisco Bay Bombers and the Cincinnati Jolters. The younger Seltzer commissioned filmmaker Robert Kaylor to document the sport and its exciting intrigue both on and off the track, and the result was 1971's Derby, a vérité diorama of lived-in lower-middle class life that must have baffled Seltzer.
For the footage of races alone, including exciting handheld shots from the track itself, Derby qualifies as a valuable record of one Americana diversion. But there are looong stretches away from the track that simply show knowable human beings enduring life with the same talent, zeal, and bluffing combination that wins derbies. Without condescension, Kaylor's grubby color film stock shows us the stuff of life, circa 1971 America. The main "character" is Mike Snell, who wanders into a team's locker room one day and announces to coach (and skating legend) Charlie O'Connell that he's going to move from Dayton, Ohio to San Francisco to conquer the sport. Kaylor follows the cocksure, vaguely Judge Reinhold-like 23-year-old to his job at Dayton Tire & Rubber (he shows up whenever he feels like it and wears his seemingly affixed prescription shades in the factory) and to his small rented home, where he lives with his wife and brother, the wiseass Butch, who has a BAN HAIRCUTS! poster in his room and is so lazy that he can't be bothered to move his flabby jaw to enunciate properly. Through friends and his own bragging, we learn that Mike is a philanderer who at one time had five girlfriends in addition to his wife, one of whom had "jugs as big as my old lady's." All drawl and attitude, Mike is a likable shit, his self-mythologizing and strut an understandable incursion against his drab day-to-day and the banality of his potential future if he can't escape. It's one of Derby's jokes that you never see Mike skate.
The documentary also follows O'Connell as the athlete travels back to New York City for a race at Madison Square Garden, the scene of many of his derby triumphs. Milling about Madison Square Park on a grey afternoon, he remembers skating there for hours on end as a kid—something the children of 1970 no longer do, he laments, because they're just "running around and throwing dirt." Kaylor later shows O'Connell at his house in California, which he calls "God's heaven." Walking around his kidney bean pool, looking out on picturesque rolling hills, with his wife tanning on a lounger, O'Connell starts listing the creature comfort particulars of his charmed current life. The tone of his voice aches with boredom and melancholy.
The film is riddled with small blindsiding moments of beauty and humor like that. The kind of stuff you "can't make up," as they say, like Christina Snell asking Butch where he put the raisins, which she needs for that night's spaghetti (?). Altmanesque overlapping conversations in a dingy Dayton bar end with one regular summing himself up with "I'm a little dirtboy from Ohio and that's my deal." There's Mike's father, proudly sporting new yellow socks as he lies on his hospital bed hearing about Mike's San Fran plans. Before one race, spectators are asked to rise for the National Anthem, but the record is broken, so the Anthem is "dispensed with" that evening, much to the chuckling delight of Mike.
Roller derby is currently enjoying a largely female-dominated renaissance, of which Drew Barrymore's Whip It is one byproduct, but it has been equal opportunity for much of its history. Most of the major league teams had both male and female versions that swapped out at races. One of Derby's funniest scenes is a car-ride conversation between two female skaters ("Weirdo One and Weirdo Two"), who talk about the funny looks their afro-ish hairstyles earn them in Ohio. On the track, the women are just as aggressive and fight-prone as their male counterparts.
It's no secret that the first few years of the 70s did not lack for great movies, but Derby is one you don't often hear about. It has the same deceptive casualness that marks much of the era's cinema, and the kind of accidental-seeming visual style and pacing that make the profound themes surprise you, or not hit home until the walk home. There are obviously staged or re-enacted bits, but the movie is amusingly self-aware of the fact, and its attitude of goodwill towards its subjects is infectious. Failing utterly as a mere educational exercise about the sport of roller derby, it slyly, marvelously explores the endlessly interesting pastime of living.