Bicycle Dreams a Provocative Documentary

Scene from Bicycle Dreams.

Bicycle Dreams
Directed by Stephen Auerbach

104 mins.

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Robert Browning is credited with the line that goes “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” As most nostrums go, this is one that’s easier to repeat than to circumscribe. We say it, nod knowingly, and move on to the next topic without asking the logical and crucial follow up: How much should the reach exceed the grasp? Bicycle Dreams is a film that’s about individuals testing their limits. When it’s over it practically demands that we consider our own.

This documentary from Stephen Auerbach takes us inside the most insane of all extreme sports: the Race Across America (RAAM) bicycle endurance test. Extreme sports are all about deprivation, pain, and trail by fire, but RAAM is a special category of madness. The goal is deceptively simple: ride from a West Coast starting point—San Diego in this account of the 2005 contest—and get to Atlantic City in fewer than ten days. To complete the 3,051-mile journey, one must ride more than 300 miles per day, a pace that means you have to average 12.9 mph in the course of a twenty-four-hour day. Sleep for six hours and you have to average 17.2 mph. For sake of comparison, the famed Tour de France covers 2,300 miles, but its riders get three weeks to finish, complete with rest days.

The 2005 winner (who also won in ’04, ’07, and ’08) was Jure Robič of Slovenia, who claims to have slept a total of eight hours in the 9 days, 8 hours, and 48 minutes it took him to finish. When we see him at the end, we believe it. It’s not a sentient human being who claims the prize, rather an automaton wrapped in meat—his other senses have shut down. I give away nothing in revealing the outcome. This film isn’t about who wins; it’s about how we conceptualize humanity, mortality, and the things that have value. Auerbach shows us riders who literally pedal in their sleep, who hallucinate regularly, and whose bodies either fail them or transcend what we think of as human biology. In some ways it’s a philosophy film. What is a human being? Is there a point beyond which an individual devolves into a lower form of life? What does one think about when normal brain functions shut down? Is it still thinking at all? On a more mundane level it makes us think about less-noble things: What’s the difference between me and the sort of person who would attempt this? Are these people heroic or just plain nuts? What could possibly be worth such pain?

It’s not easy to film this most solitary of solitary pursuits, and Auerbach doesn’t always succeed. There are a few too many gratuitous shots with a single rider lost amidst a grandiose landscape with philosophical voice-overs suggestive of Koyaanisqatsi on wheels. In like fashion there are several contrived dramas, and the film’s central tragedy—which I will not reveal—is foreshadowed to the point of predictability. How much you will appreciate the overall cinematography depends largely upon your tolerance for camera lenses aimed through spinning tire spokes. At 104 minutes, it might have made a tighter one-hour film.

These reservations aside, Bicycle Dreams is thought-provoking to the point where you will ask yourself the follow-up question that Browning ignored. Many, but not all, of the RAAM athletes spoke of how the experience was worth it. You will find yourself contemplating the same. Do we want to find our limits? What toll would we pay to experience that? If we do touch the limit, what is left to do? If not our limits, for what would we pay a high price to discover? What are our values? Bicycle Dreams isn’t the finest piece of documentary filmmaking we’ve ever seen, but it’s worth a rental, especially if you view it with a bunch of friends. The discussions that ensue will test your intellect, though we recommend you rest your body in a comfy chair as you do so.


The Grift a Vermont Rock Treasure


GlennSource RecordsTMTT-10
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Unless you live in central Vermont, put The Grift into the category of one of the best rock bands you don’t know. This talented quartet has five albums to its credit (5 1/3 if you want to count a 3-track demo from 2002) of which Doppelganger is its latest. The album is inappropriately named; Sibyl would be a better title for all the musical personalities that emerge—jam band, funk, country rock, folk rock, techno…. The band Website notes that The Grift also does tribute concerts and loads of covers. You’re likely to hear echoes of The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, The Commodores, REM, Guster, and quite a few others. This is not to say that The Grift are parrots—one of the really delightful things about Doppleganger is how it surprises—the band sound at once familiar, yet uniquely itself. Not even the instruments stay inside the lines of the musical coloring book. There is guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums, but also a member who churns out turntable scratches (Jeff Valone) and another who’s likely to put down his bass and pick up a trumpet (Peter Day). Day and guitarist Chris Bierman share vocal leads and neither has a classic rock voice—their sweet, smooth tones frequently form the counter to rougher, edgier instrumentation. The effect is akin to that of the group they most evoke for me, Snow Patrol, but again this is an approximation, not an imitation.

The songs on Doppelganger are delicious mash-ups of this, that, and why not. The aptly named “Collision” opens with extraterrestrial techno notes that suggest a disco on the space station, but there are also Jayhawks-like harmonies, and vocal catches worthy of Roy Orbison. “Stand to Fall” might be what you get if Green Day channeled soul, and lord knows what to make of “La Fille de l’Auto Stop,” which begins life as a klezmerized Quebecois tongue-twister, takes a few pulsing techno turns, and sounds all the world like an old Yes composition in the middle. If that’s not eclectic enough, try the short-in-length-long-in-quirkiness “Confound It, Archie.” My best attempt at describing it is to encourage you to imagine Gil Scott-Heron as a Vermont Beat poet in a Garrison Keillor radio sketch. Got that? Probably not, which is why you need to hear these guys for yourself. Check out their Website and MySpace pages, which have loads of things to sample.


Nora Jane Struthers Stunning Bluegrass Debut

Nora Jane Struthers
Nora Jane Struthers
Blue Pig Music 1111
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After years in the doldrums bluegrass music is suddenly besieged by a deluge of promising young stars. Welcome a new light to the galaxy, Nora Jane Struthers, and don’t be surprised if she goes supernova. Her debut album--released today--opens with “Willie,” which you’d swear was a Child Ballad of love, mayhem, and danger, but is actually a Struthers original (as are eleven of the twelve tracks). Her voice is so lovely and so fragile that it both adds to song’s drama and brings a tear to your eye. But one of the great things about Struthers is that she’s not afraid to use the entire range of her voice, and what a range it is. She can belt out a bluegrass shit kicker like “Mocking Bird,” swing a waltz such as the catchy “Thistle,” or play Mountain Mama on the traditional song “Say Darlin’ Say.” And if you want to hear her really air it out, give a listen to “Cowgirl Yodel,” which is as advertised—Texas-style yodeling the likes of which would have done Patsy Cline proud. Almost as impressive is the band behind Struthers, one that includes guest performances from Tim O’Brien, though its fiddler Stuart Duncan who steals the instrumental show with licks that are as soft a s breeze or as sizzling as a hunk of tin on summer asphalt. I suppose nitpickers might say that Struthers’ songs have a tad too much sentimentality, but my goodness can Nora Jane sing!