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November 11, 2007

Denver International Film Festival - Hell on Wheels

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Bob Ray - 2007
CrashCam Films 35mm Film

Even if one feels no passion for the sport of Roller Derby, it's the women of Hell on Wheels that give multiple reasons for seeing this documentary. These women are attractive in a way that Hollywood often does not seem to comprehend or convey, because they are also smart, fierce and funny. Even how this true life story plays out is truly surprising.

Even the creation of the original teams that took place several years ago in Austin might strike some as another Texas tall tale. A stranger comes to town with promises for young women interested in reviving Roller Derby. Four of the young women are made team captains, more by chance than design. The stranger blows out of town with a cloud of suspicion, but the four women decide to invest their time and energy into an unlikely dream. After several false starts over the course of a couple of years, the dream is manifest, if modestly at first. Hell on Wheels eventually becomes a study of sports as a business, with the original team captains pitted against many of the skaters.

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I should admit that while I have yet to see a live Roller Derby, I did have an affection for films about Roller Derby that came out in the early Seventies. Robert Kaylor's documentary, Derby, from 1971 inspired me to see Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber. I would have seen also seen Unholly Rollers had it played in a theater near me.

What makes Hell on Wheels a bit different is that while there are scenes that discuss the athleticism required to be a skater, what the film is mostly about is the business of show business. While the analogy may be a bit skewed here, Roller Derby is to organized sports what early punk rock was to the music industry. This has less to do with the celebration of trashiness, the tatoos, or any exterior trappings. What the women share is an impressive do-it-yourself ethos, much like the punk pioneers who recorded for an audience they trusted was out there. And while being a Roller Derby star may not be everyones dream, it is alway inpiring to see that for some people, even a seemingly improbable dream can come true.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 11, 2007 12:49 AM