Senna and Exposed's Guide to Racing Movies

Award winning race doc ‘Senna’ – about the life of the three-time Formula 1 World Champion – surprised many by finding an audience beyond die-hard racing fans.
It’s easy to see why. This wasn’t just a movie about cars going round in circles – director Asif Kapadia received the full cooperation of the Senna family to deliver a powerfully told story that didn’t cut corners on psychological insight. With the film roaring onto DVD today we look at some of the other attempts to capture motor racing on film, and take a pit stop off in the Steel City along the way…

The first racing films appeared in the 1920s but these were generally dramas or rom-coms that happened to be set in a motor racing paddock. James Dean was the first to sprinkle proper stardust on the sport, owning a number of cars, including his beloved Speedster, before tragically giving his life in a car crash to a Porsche Spyder long rumoured to be cursed. Here’s a clip of some of the Rebel Without A Cause’s racing highlights. 

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that, possibly fuelled by the passion of actors like Dean, studios began to capture the drama of the sport in the movies. By that time the sport’s popularity was beginning to grow. Celebrities began seeing the Grand Prix paddock as a place to be seen and drivers like Jackie Stewart were becoming household names.
First on the bandwagon, strangely, was Elvis who released several films where he played a racing driver, with Viva Las Vegas (1964) probably being the highlight. As with all his films, however, the plot was secondary to Elvis’ singing.
As the sport began to achieve previously unknown levels of popularity in the mid-sixties, so big-budget racing films began to appear. Grand Prix, Winning and Le Mans all came out within a five year period and starred some of the biggest actors of the age in James Garner, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen respectively.
They are worth watching, if only for the rare footage of 1960’s racing, but as films, they don’t really work. They don’t really capture the drama of real racing, the action is often unconvincing and they tend to veer towards clichéd, particularly with the inevitable tagged-on romantic sub-plots. Take a look at the original trailer for Grand Prix and judge for yourself.

The films were not popular with critics or racing fans but that’s not for lack of trying from the stars themselves. Garner was reportedly a fan of the sport while Winning ignited Newman’s interest in pursuing his own real-life racing career. He wasn’t bad either – going on to finish runner up in the 1979 Le Mans 24 hours and co-owning a successful racing team. 
Taking pole position as superstar racing fan was the totemic, irascible Steve McQueen however. Le Mans was his project, so much so that original director John Sturgess walked out due to the star’s constant interference.

Intriguingly, it’s also the closest of all the films we’re showcasing to a documentary, featuring 37 minutes without dialogue at the start as it tries to convey the atmosphere of the race. Unfortunately it is no more successful than its predecessors at doing this and suffers many of the same problems. It’s far too long, the plot is clichéd and even the racing action, despite McQueen’s desire for authenticity, is often unconvincing.
These films may not have been brilliant, but the second wave that followed in the 1990’s were truly awful. Not just bad for racing films, but two of the worst films ever. Again, these were passion projects for their stars but whereas the sixties had McQueen, Newman and Garner, the 90’s gave us films by Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone.
Nascar-based Days of Thunder is now only famous for bringing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman together and should really be forgotten altogether, although it’s worth a look for characters apparently named after Mr Men and The Simpsons. Cole Trickle and Rowdy Burns, anyone?
Bad as that film is, it has nothing on Driven, which Stallone also wrote the screenplay for. It has to be seen to be believed particularly for the scene below where Stallone and his rival steal racing cars from a swanky event and race each other through the streets of Chicago…

It has only really been the last few years that people have turned to the documentary format to capture the drama of the sport. And we’re lucky enough to boast one of the pioneers of this approach on our doorstep in the form of Sheffield-based company Slackjaw Film.
Their films The Deadliest Crash and Grand Prix: The Killer Years were made for the BBC and focus on the tragic aspects of motor racing. They cover the 1955 Le Mans 24 hour disaster when a Mercedes crashed into the crowd, killing its driver and 83 spectators and Formula 1 in the 1950’s and 1960’s when drivers had to cope with the possibility that they could die every time they stepped into the cockpit. Both films succeed in telling real-life stories that are far more compelling and affecting than any of the fictional stories Hollywood came up with. They should be the first port of call for anyone who was impressed by Senna and is now looking for more.

Senna wasn’t the first motor racing documentary that tried to go mainstream, however. Gary Neale released Faster back in 2003. Narrated by Ewan McGregor, it tells the story of the 2001 and 2002 MotoGP seasons. Like its predecessor it tries to focus on the personalities of the riders who take part in the sport. It didn’t achieve the same sort of success as Senna, largely because it wasn’t as successful at making the sport accessible to non-fans, but it’s still worth watching.
Closer in approach to Senna is another film that came out this year. TT 3D: Closer to Edge is based on the annual bike races on the Isle of Man and performed above expectations at the box office thanks to some excellent use of 3D and, like Senna, a focus on the personalities.

But nothing really comes close to Senna. It manages to provide a compelling and very film-like, narrative that draws in more than just the racing crowd. Perhaps the main thing is that the story the film tells is so interesting. Senna was a complex man and that really comes across on screen, both from the images of his racing and the more personal home videos that are used.
So what’s next for the genre? Unfortunately it seems like it’s going back to the old days. The next big racing film will be Rush, set to be released in 2013. It tells the story of Niki Lauda, his rivalry with James Hunt and his near-fatal crash in 1976. It will be directed by Ron Howard and will also feature Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth as Hunt. It’s certainly a good story but Senna has shown that the best way to tell it might be by focusing on real-life, not the Hollywood version.
Words by Stephen Farrell
Senna is released on DVD and Blu Ray on October 10th.  Slackjaw's documentaries The Killer Years and Deadliest Crash are both available on DVD.

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