Back when I was growing up in Portland, Oregon, we really did watch Roller Derby, and I remember vividly the exploits of Joanie Weston who, when she came out of the pack, always drew a cheer. Trying to capture the sub-culture of of roller derby, a sport that has always flown below the establishment radar, is no easy task, but our two films have both tried. For the record, I’ve just been schooled by several of our readers (see comments below) for posting an early and inaccurate first review (to which I plead nolo contendere). Now that I’ve been fact-checked I can report that there are currently over 445 roller derby leagues world wide in thirteen countries with 16,500 registered participants. So this sport is a pretty big deal. My apologies to the fans and let’s do this Smack over now…
First-time director Drew Barrymore is the latest to strap on some skates and get on the oval track. The POV in Whip It is Texas teenager Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page from Juno) who escapes mom-centric beauty pageants for the rough-and-tumble. Along the way, she hooks up with a rock star, asserts her womanhood all over the place, becomes a phenom and takes her team, the “Hurl Scouts,” all the way to the championship. Inspired by the Shauna Cross novel, Derby Girl, Whip It invokes the real, functioning roller derby league (TXRD) in Austin, and as our Smackdown reader Frankenbike points out, this is the place that got the wheels turning on the modern derby movement back in 2001.
The Defending Champion
Back in 1972 when they made Kansas City Bomber, roller-derby was red-hot, coming off a couple of decades of post-war growth. They cast the hottest babe of the day, Raquel Welch, to play K.C. Carr, a character loosely based on Joanie Weston. She plays a single mom who’s driven by desperation into the world of the derby. It’s a relentless run of low rent venues, tough competitors, sexism and lost middle-age dreams. What you’re seeing in this film is not the roller derby that is played in leagues within a city today but the traveling team model. It depicts the competition but also the sleaziness that supposedly went along with the sport back then.
To the non-fans, roller derby may exist just one level up from the fake world of professional wrestling, but it’s still a real world where honest-to-God actual skaters compete against each other and the most athletic usually win. Both Kansas City Bomber and Whip It lay out that world as realistically as they can, but the earlier film just isn’t as slick as its competition here. Watching it is like watching Reefer Madness — it may be campy, but it feels dated and unintentionally comical in places. Another big difference is how in Kansas City Bomber being a roller derby queen is a paying gig and part of the drama is joining to make ends meet while in Whip It we enter a world where not a single player in modern roller derby is paid. In one film, it’s a job. In another, it’s just the love of the sport. The first has more potential for drama while the latter has to manufacture the beauty pageant versus roller derby conflict (which, trumped up as it is, still pretty much works). Ellen Page is good as always, but she feels slight and miscast, seeming like someone who wouldn’t make it five minutes in the world of Raquel’s sport, kind of like Juno-in-Skates. And, speaking of Raquel, it’s the role of her career. She’s athletic, sexy, aggressive. Before you dismiss it as sexploitation though, the uniforms in Whip It are far more teasing than anything in Kansas City Bomber. When it comes to physical action, actresses in both films learned to skate, but it was Raquel who played it extra hard and rough, doing most of her own stunts and breaking her wrist in the process. On the other hand, Whip It has Kristen Wiig playing the Raquel single-mom role and she’s just simply awesome. But both films used real players in their action scenes and it shows. Whip It also has the distinction of using 75 songs in 111 minutes of film. I’m not sure if that’s the record but it’s gotta be close. And the music works.
On one level, Whip It is a slight little trifle of a film while Kansas City Bomber actually aspires to be taken seriously, telling one of those gritty stories on film that the ’70s were famous for. The execution in Kansas City Bomber just feels badly dated, however, while Whip It is sleek and fun and manages to extract the required laughs and cries in what turns out to be a pretty damn fine coming-of-age story. If you’re into the history of the sport, you’ll want to see Kansas City Bomber but if you’re out for a light night out, or a passionate derby-fan these days, then Whip It into shape.