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April 12, 2012

Derby, Baby!: A Story of Love, Addiction and Rink Rash

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Robin Bond & David Wruck - 2012
Robin Bond Media

I still have yet to see Roller Derby live. And that I love movies, both narrative and documentary, about Roller Derby, is something I can't explain about myself, nor do I think it necessary to justify such mysteries. But I jumped at the chance to see this newest documentary, currently making the rounds of film festivals.

Unlike Hell on Wheels, which I covered five years ago, Derby, Baby! tries to cover a lot of ground in a small amount of time. What may be the best reason to see this film is that it provides some historical context, presenting a brief history of Roller Derby from its introduction during Depression era America, to its time as a staple of early broadcast television. The living link to the history of Roller Derby is Jerry Seltzer, son of the founder of Roller Derby, providing stories of his father, discussing the changes over the years, and popping up at various events. One of the more eye opening bits of information is that Roller Derby founder Leo Seltzer created the rules, still pretty much in place, with Damon Runyon. What isn't explained is how a sport that began with teams of both men and women, with same sex teams alternating in each round, to a sport primarily dominated by female teams. It should be noted that there are still guys doing Roller Derby, but this film focuses on the skating women.

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The only misstep is to have a bunch of talking heads without any titling to let us know who they are until the end of the film. It's only by focusing on their published writings that the viewer can identify sports writer Vicki Michaelis, or historian Anne Enke. Especially for their fans is lack of identification until those final credits. Juliette Lewis, whose relationship to Roller Derby comes from her role in Whip It, provides narration and a song on the soundtrack.

The film jumps around from Dublin to Denver to Charlotte to Toronto, with views of various teams, players, and those behind the scenes. Included are scenes of events such as hundreds of skaters taking over the streets of Paris, and a parody of the running of the bulls in New Orleans, only with the women skaters wearing horns, whacking the rears of men on the run. In a sport that has been growing with new teams and leagues, such as this new Denver area team, there are questions about how Roller Derby will evolve, as well as questions concerning the pursuit of corporate sponsorship and playing professionally. Roller Derby as it mostly exists at this time is, as the song goes, sisters doing it for themselves. The main story of Derby, Baby! is one of female empowerment.

The use of pseudonyms, costumes, and behavior which challenges traditional concepts of what it means to be a woman are touched on here. There is also discussion on how the women put aside various differences within the teams, as well as with rival teams, although there is still some diva behavior, as would be found in any area of sports and show business. For those with a problem with women who aren't conventionally attractive, or with anything that smacks of feminism, you probably won't be moved as I was, by the closing shot of the little girl on roller skates, arm in arm with her proud father.

And, yeah, I'm home team proud for the Denver Roller Dolls. They're all beautiful as far as I'm concerned.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 12, 2012 08:08 AM