On Any Sunday

Director: Bruce Brown                           
Steve McQueen, Malcolm Smith, Mert Lawwill

Bruce Brown is best known for his surfing pseudo-documentaries The Endless Summer and The Endless Summer II, though you'd be mistaken to think that his passions just lie in surfing. Five years after The Endless Summer, he made On Any Sunday, a co-production with Steve McQueen's Solar Productions that took a general look at motorcycle racing in North America. The movie did do well at the time (and was an Oscar nominee, I believe), but it soon faded into obscurity. It's initial cassette release during the early days of video was spotty, and quickly became hard to find (*). But recently, Monterey Home Video re-released the movie on video in a special edition. It's fluff, but a pleasant piece of fluff, and not without a little education about the sport. Take advantage of this opportunity to rent it now, before it becomes hard to find again.

This special edition contains a few goodies before the main feature. First, we see the (very short) theatrical trailer for this movie. Then director and narrator Bruce Brown, in narration recorded in 1991, reminisces about his experiences with making On Any Sunday, while we see surprisingly well-preserved footage of Steve McQueen (including a nude scene!) that never made the final cut. In fact, the footage overall looks better than the footage in the movie which, although it overall looks good, suffers occasionally from splotches and other crud on the negative. Anyway, while we watch this never before seen footage, Brown talks for several minutes in an interesting monologue about his experiences - how Steve McQueen inspired Brown's passion in motorcycles, what McQueen was like during the filming, and what happened after the movie was made. McQueen looks happy, relaxed, and very comfortable in this footage. It's hard to believe that in just a few years, his personal and professional life started to get shot to hell.

Viewers expecting to see a lot of the top billed Steve McQueen in this movie will be disappointed, though. By my count, he only appears about three times in the entire movie, and only for a few minutes each time. Nor is he given a real chance to talk, because almost all of the movie is shown in silence, except for Brown's narration. The one time we do get to hear McQueen's voice is one of the most interesting parts of the movie - McQueen says something to the effect of whenever he's feeling down, he races, and he feels the joy of humanity from the other racers. I was hoping that McQueen would elaborate on this a little more, but he's then cut off.

Later in the movie, Brown brings this question up again, about why do these motorcyclists get so passionate about the sport. Brown says, "Why do they do it? No answer. If you ask them, they just say they like to do it." At this point, I was disappointed with Brown copping out like this, because that's a question I wanted answered before I watched this movie. Before watching this movie, I could never understand why people are so passionate about this sport. Couldn't have Brown at least tried to ask this question to some of the motorbike racers he covers in this movie? Have them express their feelings, to tell us why they will stay on the road for eight months of the year, and leave their wives and other loved ones at home. However, it eventually became clear that Brown does seem to want to answer this question, but doesn't do it in the conventional way. Brown seems to feel that to explain the "why" here, showing the deeds is better than speaking the words.

Brown tells us at the beginning of the movie, "A motorcycle is what you make of it," and during the 90 minutes he not only shows us the uncountable ways a motorcycle can be used, he also uses uncountable ways for us to experience motorbiking. In some scenes, he uses a camera strapped to the front of a motorbike. We've seen that before, but not the way Brown uses it - in one sequence, the motorbike is traveling tilted at an incredible speed around the track, and we see the bike barely misses hitting the guardrail and other bikers several times -  I found myself unconsciously tilting my neck. Another P.O.V. sequence has a bike roaring through a desert plain spotted with small desert bushes. I was amazed at how the biker had the skill at over 100 m.p.h. to make instant calculations so he would avoid hitting these bushes.

Sometimes Brown uses trickery like slow motion to capture both the skill the riders must have, and the sheer thrill they are thrilling. Near the end of the movie, we are treated to McQueen and two other bikers riding around and jumping over sand dunes. Seeing the bikers in a mid-air jump, and falling down in slow motion managed to convey the passion yet the intense concentration the bikers were feeling. Most of these trickery moments work, though I was annoyed when Brown used his unfortunate trademark of not only staging scenes (like a phony interview), and putting some of these faked scenes in fast motion - all of which are labored, padded, and unfunny. Fortunately, there aren't many moments like those in this movie.

We learn a lot about motorcycling, and the racers themselves. We see how they will even work long hours by making cuts in their tires, or sanding down their bike chains, all in order to lose a few ounces and increase their R.P.M.s. We learn most bikers are small, young men in their early 20s, and many of them making motorcycle racing a 7 days a week job. Most of the movie is about racing in North America, but we are also shown the suicidal sport of ice racing in Quebec, and an annual six day long cross-country race over brutal terrain in Spain, where you have almost no time to change a tire or rest. We see the land speed record (previously 250 m.p.h.) broken by 15 m.p.h., though of course that pales beside the land speed records recently that broke the sound barrier. Still interesting, though.

The movie has an excellent score, occasionally imitating spaghetti western scores, though one bit sounded a bit too close to the score from Hang 'em High. The tone of the movie is kept light, in part by Brown's serious yet bubbly narration. He does show an amusing "blooper" segment, when bikers at a motorcross race keep wiping out, though wisely doesn't let it run too long. In fact, Brown never lets us forget that though this sport can be exhilarating, it is always extremely dangerous, even for the experts. We see the bikers putting on safety equipment like steel shoes, and learn that many times the bikers will have to ride or slide along with their bikes to an inevitable crash. The one part of the movie where we see a serious crash is tastefully handled. Brown stops his narration, and lets the scene itself play out, where we don't know at first if the biker is dead, alive, or badly injured. You'll learn how bad the experience of watching a real life crash is like, even when seeing that the biker survived. The makers of those FOX reality shows could learn something by watching this scene.

There's so much we see and learn here, that you'll forgive Bruce even if a scene goes on too long, and you are impatient to learn something new. And you know what? By the end of the movie, I think I had a pretty good idea of what those motorbikers are feeling, and why they do it. Though over 20 years old, viewers wanting to learn more about the sport and the passion would be hard pressed to find something better than this. (P.S. - In 1981, there was a follow-up made without Brown called On Any Sunday II, which I understand is nowhere as good as this movie.)

* I remember the one video store in my city that stocked it taking advantage of the situation, by charging double the usual rental rate for this title.

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Also: Biker Dreams, Skateboard Madness, Jabberwalk