Tuesday, 27 November 2012


For the MAN in your Life.
For Christmas.

Here's your Greg Klymkiw Christmas Gift Suggestion #5 for 2012. "The Roller Derby Chronicles" is a must for all the menfolk nearest and dearest to you. From VSC (Video Service Corp) this is a 3-disc derby delight that features two documentaries (one contemporary, one a near-classic from 1971) and a whole mess of vintage Roller Derby matches from the late 40s to mid 70s. The discs come in a cool package that includes a mini-replica of a roller derby rink on the cover.

The Immortal Francine Kochu

The Roller Derby Chronicles: Rolling Thunder (2009) *** dir. Larry Gitnick
Starring: Donald Drewry, Gwen "Skinny Mini" Miller, Charlie O'Connell, Francine Kochu, Jerry Seltzer, Leo Seltzer

This 48-minute (standard television one-hour) documentary is a fast-paced, but informative and entertaining introduction to the strange "sport" of roller derby that for a 30-year period took America by storm. We see the early beginnings of roller derby as launched, invented and promoted by Leo Seltzer, its life, trajectory and near-death due to television in the 50s (they made more money on live shows than on TV licence fees and royalties). The film show the rebirth of roller derby under the guidance of Seltzer's son Jerry up to the pinnacle of its popularity in the 70s until it's death in the same decade due to the fuel crisis in America.

The doc is replete with lots of great roller derby footage from a variety of periods and deftly presents the rules of the game in addition to the various modifications over the years. The "action" is supported with new and period interviews with Roller Derby stars like Skinny Mini Miller, Charlie O'Connell and the lovely Francine Kochu.

Introduced and occasionally narrated by the delightfully cheesy dulcet tones of sports announcer Donald Drewry, Rolling Thunder is a terrific primer for anyone not familiar with roller derby and a wonderful walk (or roll) down memory lane for those of us who religiously watched Roller Derby on television and saw it live whenever we could. (As a kid I used to see Roller Derby in the old, packed-to-the-rafters 10,000-seat Winnipeg Arena.)

All in all, Rolling Thunder (obviously not to be confused with the great 70s post-Vietnam vigilante thriller with William Devane) is a terrific appetizer to the buffet dinner to come.

Cinema Verite Meets Roller Derby

The Roller Derby Chronicles: Derby (1971) ***1/2 dir. Robert Kaylor
Starring: Mike Snell, Charlie O'Connell

Review By Greg Klymkiw

If one looks at Rolling Thunder as a starter course and the two discs of actual Roller Derby matches as dessert, then 1971's Derby is a full-on gourmet main course.

Initially financed by the Roller Derby moguls to promote the sport and to focus on its biggest star Charlie O'Connell, the dream team of Derby's key creatives came up with something far more fascinating. While following the affable O'Connell around, the filmmakers are presented with a very happy accident. A young Mike Snell showed up whilst the cameras were rolling on O'Connell in the dressing room. Snell wants to play roller derby and zeroes in immediately upon the reigning star to get advice.

Snell has quit his back-breaking proletarian unskilled labour job, saved up three years worth of wages to learn the art of roller derby and with his wife's support, he's going to seek stardom in Roller Derby. To the filmmakers, this was too good to be true and we bounce back and forth between the grounded O'Connell and the live-wired irresponsibility of Snell. This guy is also a major cocksman and the film focuses on his philandering and even follows Snell's wife as she confronts one of his many lovers.

Yes, the movie is about Roller Derby, but it's also about the American Dream gone completely awry and though the picture peters out in its final minutes, it is, for the most part one of the most fascinating cinema verite documentaries of the period.

To anyone following this sort of thing, this should come as no surprise. The director is Robert Kaylor who went on to direct the flawed, but strangely compelling feature length drama Carny with Gary Busey, Robbie Robertson and Jodie Foster. The producer is William Richert who went on to direct one of the best political thriller satires of the 70s, Winter Kills with Jeff Bridges and John Huston. And last, but not least, Derby's editor is Anthony Potenza who'd go on to direct the famed rock-doc No Nukes, some of Bruce Springsteen's best videos as well as the epic Springsteen video anthology.

Derby is a winner all the way and a documentary that demands re-discovery!!!