As Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka so eloquently put it: “If the good lord had intended us to walk, he wouldn’t have invented roller skates.” Indeed. Yet while this week’s Drew Barrymore-directed, grrrl-powered roller-derby film Whip It is garnering positive critical buzz, it’s only the latest in a — who would have guessed? — surprisingly long (if decidedly checkered) line of on-screen roller-skating jams to have touched wheels to the cement and the rink. Don’t believe us? Here then are some of the greatest, the shoddiest and the plain old weirdest of them — as we proceed to whip it, and whip it good…
In just nine years from now — 2018! — corporations rule a world pacified via the televised spectacle of… Rollerball! It’s a game in which company teams take to a circular track on skates and motorbikes and bash all kinds of hell out of each other as they try to get a metal ball into a magnetized goal. The brutal sport has been secretly designed to demonstrate the futility of individuality but, of course, one man has risen to become a global champion. And that man is Jonathan E and he refuses to retire, even when the powers-that-be revise the game’s rules — or lack thereof — with the intention of killing him. Norman Jewison’s flick features James Caan at his mid-’70s toughest amid some crunching action, terrific use of Bach’s Toccata and a dark vision of capitalism’s end-run around liberty. Why oh why did they have to remake it so badly in 2002?
What was in the air — or the water — in 1980 that it gave us two legendarily camp movie musicals, both of which feature roller-skating interludes? Choosing the worst ain’t easy. In Xanadu we get Olivia Newton-John as the all-singing, all-dancing muse who’s never happier than when she’s skating ethereally around LA’s boardwalks and disused auditoria — or through dry ice smoke. And there’s Gene Kelly, in his last, er, roll, zipping along, and tap-dancing to, er, boot. (Kelly had done it before in the far classier 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather — watch the clip below.) The Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music, meanwhile, features the ghastly spectacle of Steve Guttenberg trying — emphasis on trying — to roller-skate through Manhattan. And then, later, Bruce Jenner gets in on the roller-action.
It was great to see Heather Graham so well cast in The Hangover this year because too often the beautiful actress is seen wallowing in the likes of Killing Me Softly or Miss Conception. But arguably her best-ever performance, and one that provided a rare combination of her comedic and dramatic talents, was as “Rollergirl” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s towering porn-world epic Boogie Nights. Bubbly, sexy, innocent, crazy, dangerous — she projected it all, and often on rollerskates. Don’t try this at home, or in the dome.
Linda Blair (moving from Hell’s minion to Hell on wheels) and Jim Bray (former competitive skater) star alongside Beverly Garland (B-movie actress best known for It Conquered The World) for director Mark L. Lester (Class of 1984, Commando) in this tale of roller-skating kids in love who just want to roller boogie in the Roller Boogie competition, except for that dastardly developer who wants to knock down their Roller Rink! At the end, Linda Blair goes off to New York (in reality, she’d head into decades of schlock), Jim Bray goes to the Olympics (he couldn’t because he’d ended his amateur status by doing this movie) and 50 or so extras used here got ready to don the skates again for Xanadu, shot in many of the same Venice locations. What’s terrific about this is the roller-skating breakdancing on the rink, a couple years before the trend really took off in the mainstream. What’s less terrific is Cher’s song from the film, “Hell on Wheels”.
In the annals of roller-skating, it’d seem that while Los Angeles wins out, thanks to its board walks and more laidback vibe and skater history, Manhattan has its share of stellar sequences. And none are more stellar than Miss Piggy strapping on some borrowed skates in Central Park to chase down a mugger who has stolen her purse. Her flying through the park to take him down is up there with the work seen in Unholy Rollers. Hiiiiyaaar! And no, Miss Piggy was not harmed in the shooting of this scene. The long shots are a human stunt double. In case it wasn’t, you know, really obvious.
Think Whip It, if it’d been made by Paul Verhoeven. Former Playboy playmate Claudia Jennings is cat-food worker Karen who, following sexual harassment, makes ends meet by becoming a star roller-derby babe. Anticipating Jonathan E., she’s no team player, and, predating Nomi Malone by two decades, she uses her rising status to take down her lesbian nemesis. It goes without saying that this features plenty of gratuitous nudity and includes a skate rink strip and sex scene. Sadly, the gorgeous Ms Jennings would die before the decade was out, killed in an auto accident. Executive producer Roger Corman, however, would go on and on like the Duracell Bunny. We hope this one’s is included in the clip montage next year when he’s presented his lifetime achievement Oscar by Martin Scorsese…
Who knew 1972 was such a banner year for roller derby flicks? While the title sounds like a terrorist-stalks-a-city plot also popular at the time, it actually refers to Raquel Welch, whose character K.C. is, as the poster puts it, “the hottest thing on wheels”. In a deviation from other roller-skating epics, in this one K.C. is encouraged to be a star and supposedly it’s the fans you gotta look out for. That said, a lot of the movie’s taken up with in competition and out-of-game smack downs between girls, guys, team members and adversaries. The rivalry between K.C. and Jackie (played by Helena Kallianiotis, who was Golden Globe nominated for Best Supporting Actress — whip that, Drew!) though, has to be resolved (after an awesome punch in the face) by a “match race”. It sounds quite civil but, with its high-kicking, gut-punching and hair-flailing, it’s a bitch fight for the ages! A couple of quick questions, though: did Will Ferrell time travel to play the referee? And is that Sasquatch with the number 25 jersey on?
Charlie Chaplin had taken to the roller skates before in 1916’s The Rink (see below), but his crowning moment on the little wheels came in this classic. He and Paulette Goddard don the skates in the fourth floor toy room of a department store and he glides around ever-so-gracefully, blindfolded, right next to a precipice, while gorgeous gamin’ Goddard stumbles around trying to warn him. It’s classic. And still hair-raising! The effect, however, was created using a matte, so there was actually no huge drop and no risk to the actor. His blindfold, meanwhile, was a see-through mesh. But he did all the skating himself — devoting a whopping eight days to the short scene.
A year before she became America’s Sweetheart on Friends, Jennifer Aniston made her movie debut in this low-budget cult horror comedy, which stars Warwick Davis in the title role. What’s weirdest about this story of one little Irish monster’s quest for his treasure (“I want me gold… now!”) are the remarkable modes of transportation he uses. You’ll find him zipping around on a kid’s tricycle, a wheelchair and a go-kart, and bouncing up and down on a pogo stick until he spears it through a dude’s chest. The horrible little beast eventually also gets around to roller skates, careening down a road, arms flailing, until he crashes into a white picket fence — leaving a Leprechaun-shaped hole, of course.
Set in an alternative-universe post-apocalypse, this has the sometimes nude, always rollerskating nuns of the holy order of Roller Blade (no, we’re not making this up) infiltrated by the sexy — and roller-skating — minion of evil sock puppet Dr Saticoy. And then there’s Marshall Goodman, goodly skate cowboy, who’s trying to teach his son the ways of the little wheels. Soft-core girl-girl porn and Zen philosophy collide in the first of numerous weirdy-beardy roller-skating epics from the late, great Z-grade filmmaker Donald G. Jackson.
We’re not about to rewrite cinematic history by arguing Michael Cimino’s legendary flop is some sort of neglected masterpiece. True, it’s beautifully shot and the production design is wonderful, but it’s also tedious beyond belief in places. That said, the roller-skating scene is technically wicked. Acid-wit Joe Queenan, calling Heaven’s Gate the worst film ever made in The Guardian last year, also wrote: “This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates.”
That State of Play didn’t set the box-office on fire earlier this year probably had a lot to do with the fact that Russell Crowe didn’t go about his journalistic business with a series of wacky pseudonyms and disguises — and rollerskates. It certainly worked for Chevy Chase as Fletch. During this highpoint of his comic career, he introduces himself as Harry S. Truman, Igor Stravinsky and Don Corleone, not to mention Dr Rosenpenis/Rosenrosen and John Cocktolstone, and poses as a big-toothed aircraft mechanic and IRS geek. But Fletch’s most outrageous impersonation is Baba au Rum, a bald but bearded roller-skating beach hippie in long flowing robes.
Think Whip It, if it’d been made by Michael Moore. This is about Mike Snell, tire-factory worker who aspires to be a roller derby champion, and others who play the sport. While there’s plenty of roller derby action, it soon gives way to an intense, raw depiction of the American working class in the early 1970s. Read Roger Ebert’s review from back in the day and see if it doesn’t make you thankful the DVD was released earlier this year.
Okay, we know this one’s all about roller-blading, but we couldn’t resist. For those of you wondering what became of Corey Haim’s career, might we direct you to this 1990 futuristic actioner — a future in which, as the tagline reminds us: “it’s gonna take one man and his blades to save the world from another man…and HIS blades.”