HAL NEEDHAM’S “BALLET WITH BMX BIKES” RESURFACING AT SXSW THIS YEAR

BARGAIN BINNED DIGS DEEP INTO THE RANDOM AND FASCINATING TITLES FOUND IN THE CLEARANCE AISLE

Director Hal Needham knew stunts. He was a stuntman himself, having worked in innumerable Westerns during the ’60s begore turning his eye to directing in the ’70s with iconic, stunt-filled comedy spectacles such as Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, The Cannonball Run, and Stroker Ace. These are movies where the characters are more a series of looks, one-liners, and quirks than actual, three-dimensional beings. The point of all of Needham’s films are that you’re either laughing at a joke, gasping at some sort of madcap deviltry on-screen, or – ideally – both, simultaneously.

Sadly, for all of Needham’s success as a writer and director, after The Cannonball Run Part II, the director only made two more films, spending the remaining two and half decades of his career working on auto racing. Those final two films, 1986’s Rad, and 1987’s Body Slam, are fairly terrible, so I obviously own Rad on a semi-legitimate DVD I picked up in a clearance bin at a Vintage Stock in Kansas City, Kansas, for the low, low price of 25 cents. It comes in a slimline case, and has what appears to be artwork created on an inkjet printer circa 2002. It’s from a company called GetRecked!, who appear to deal exclusively in weird, out-of-print, grey-area movies.

How to explain Needham’s Rad? Here’s the blurb from the back of the 1986 Embassy VHS release, replete in all its oddly-phrased and emphasized glory:

“Cru Jones (BILL ALLEN) is the best BMX biker in Cochrane. He’s got the talent to become the best BMX daredevil in the world. As the local paperbot, he jumps, spins, twists, and flips his bike with amazing ability. BART CONNER is the best BMX biker in the world, and he’s in town to race in the $100,000 HELLTRACK, the most grueling BMX race in history. Cru wants a shot at winning the title, but his mom, TALIA SHIRE, insists he take his college entrance exams which fall on the same day.

For the first time in his life, Cru has to make his own decisions. He decides to go for Helltrack, but JACK WESTON the race promoter, has a dirty scheme for keeping the local whiz kid out of the race and away from his prized champion. Only the gorgeous LORI LOUGHLIN, a member of the opposite team, can get Allen on track for HELLTRACK! And teach him a few other things while she’s at it.”

It’s just as weird and inconsistent as the film itself. Names are oddly capitalized, but some characters are referred to by their names, while others are referred to by the names of the actors portraying them. There’s random emphasis, odd punctuation, and it’s just a mess – basically, the movie in a nutshell – but it’s soooooo fun. It’s really (really (really, really)) dumb, to be sure. That scene with the BMX bikes on the dance floor is infamous to the point of being iconic, but it’s the sort of absurdity which even your standard Adult Swim show might avoid for being too on the nose.

There are so very, very many montages in Rad, making the laws of time and space confusing. Usually, montages are meant to compress an entire day into a few minutes, or days into minutes, so it ends up seeming like maybe the movie takes place in just a couple of days. That’s obviously not the case, though, because it’s not like a massive race for a grand prize of a hundred grand just gets announced on a Monday, then happens on a Saturday, especially in 1986.

The thing about Rad, as a film, is that it has this very particular thing so many movies have when they fail to connect, resulting in them aging in a way which results in a film that’s almost alien when viewed currently. That’s this insistence on taking a very marginal sport – BMX racing – and presenting it as if it’s as big as the Super Bowl or World Series. I know BMX racing has its fans, but Needham’s script presents the kids of Cochrane arguing over BMX riders as if they were Lebron and … some other basketball player. I don’t know sports.

It’s like Grandview U.S.A. and that film’s use of demolition derby, in that it’s trying to use this outsider sport in order to bring you in as a viewer, like, “Hey, you totally relate to this thing, right?” when in fact it should be something which emphasizes the outsider nature of a character or setting. See also: every movie about skateboarding ever. Somehow, kung fu movies never fall prey to this, and I think that’s simply due to the fact that, monkey style or not, we can all get into the idea of watching someone beat up another person within an inch of their life with cool kicks and punches.

Reviews contemporaneous with Rad‘s release were, to put it bluntly, not kind. Michael Wilmington’s Los Angeles Times review, entitled “Whoa There, Dude, What’s So ‘Rad’?” sums it up nicely, saying:

“It lives on its action and dies on its gab. It also would have been better without all those songs about catching the thunder and grabbing the lightning and going for the glory. They sound like a rejected ad campaign for Old Milwaukee. In movies like this, action is often enough–but here, it’s just not radical.”

In The New York Times, Walter Goodman’s “Bike Acrobatics In Hal Needham’s ‘Rad’” is only slightly more kind: “The bicycle acrobatics behind the credits at the opening of ”Rad” are so spectacular that you wonder what the movie can do to improve on them. The short answer is, nothing.”

Happily, the film’s gone on to have a pretty solid afterlife. While it under-performed at the box office, easily a million dollars less than its $3 million budget, sites like Slate have given it the retrospective treatment, describing it as “abstract, BMX-inspired poetry.” In 2018, there was a full-size, legit recreation of the Helltrack itself in Midlothian, Texas. And, if that wasn’t enough – and this literally might be my favorite movie-related piece of weirdness I’ve found working online – media company Blue Corona has a blog entitled, “3 Marketing Lessons From The Movie Rad,” wherein Ben Landers offers up Rad Marketing Lessons such as number two, “Sometimes It’s Okay to Go Ugly Early,” suggesting that, much like Cru knows “when it comes to racing, performance matters more than aesthetics,” so it’s a better idea to focus on results, rather than outward appearances.

The internet is really, really weird.

Anyhow, so: literally, just as I was finishing this piece up, they announced that Rad‘s going to have a 4K reissue screening at SXSW this year, which is mind-boggling, but then again, Vinegar Syndrome put out a 4K Blu-ray of Tammy & The T-Rex last year, so who knows what’s normal anymore? Hopefully, this means the rights issues have been worked out somewhat (as the XGames website reported in 2011, the rights to the film “had passed through studio hands several times to the point that the no one knew who actually owned the film”).