In 1970, Roller Derby is one of America's fastest-growing sports, largely because the audiences who attend love to see the unscheduled fights that break out between the participants, not unlike ice hockey which holds a similar appeal. The sportswomen are just as violent as their male counterparts, as while they don't share the same rink in the matches, they do follow the same rules, and unwritten rules for that matter, as this documentary begins as an examination of the phenomenon, then moves on to focus on one aspiring derby player, Mike Snell, who shows up at one meeting asking for advice as to how to join a professional team as a career...
Derby was a film commissioned by one of the actual authorities in the sport to publicise what in the nineteen-seventies was seizing the imagination of the American public - but not in any other places around the world, not to the same extent. This meant that Americans of the day found this film fascinating, yet it didn't travel too well, as for a start director Robert Kaylor did not even explain the rules for anyone new to the scene, and you would be all at sea trying to identify the teams as well. There was one legend of the game interviewed, Charlie O'Connell, but his contributions were few and far between, as Kaylor decided to focus on Snell, who seemed a real character to him.
He wasn't wrong, and Snell's family and friends in his orbit had the same kind of interest for what amounted to a fly on the wall documentary, with the result that Derby was more likely to succeed for documentary buffs than it was for followers of the sport given Kaylor was regularly distracted by this lower class existence that seemed to mean more to him than recording the exploits on the skates. That's not to say there was no action at all, as every so often we broke off from Snell to see, well, a bunch of folks in uniforms and helmets and on skates beating each other up, which suggests there was a repetitive nature to a night out at one of these events, and the crowd didn't mind.
But this was really Snell's story, which was curious as it was no spoiler to point out we never so much as glimpse him on roller skates throughout the ninety-minute running time. We do get to find out plenty about him, however, and everyone around him thanks to an apparent glamour of being the star of your own movie, though there was very little otherwise glamorous about what was recorded. Our protagonist lives with his wife Christina and their two toddler children, and also Mike's brother Butch, who was a natural for a subject that existed in its own kind of near-squalor, since Butch was comically inert, refusing to do anything for himself and apparently whiling away his days reading Playboy and eating, though when the subject of being drafted for the Vietnam War arises, he comes into his own.
You cannot imagine Butch with a gun in his hand, in fact you cannot imagine him with very much in his hand except a burger, but it was personalities like him that made Derby worth spending time with, probably because you could bring your own judgement to it, for there was very little, if any, judgement to be gleaned from Kaylor. He was of the "point and shoot" documentary school, and if they captured anything worth showing to an audience, so much the better. Did we need to see Christina and her pal accosting one of Mike's girlfriends for what seems like half an hour of bitching at one another? Well, that's what you got, as his choices in life look a million miles away from achieving the fancy mansion with swimming pool that O'Connell managed to acquire for himself. You could see why the mockumentary style was just around the corner, but in some ways Derby went one better by depicting reality. Yet the title was deceptive, this was more about class, poverty, society... all that stuff. Worth watching for the big laugh at the final scene.