LOS ANGELES, November 22, 2013 – “Weekend of a Champion” is a new documentary film with a vintage documentary film embedded inside. Essentially, it is a restoration of the original 1972 documentary co-directed by Frank Simon (also entitled “Weekend Of A Champion”) with a new interview between subject Jackie Stewart and the film’s original producer and co-director Roman Polanski, attached at the end.
It would be easy to dismiss this film as a retread and an opportunistic 40th anniversary reissue project. But that would pay a compliment to retread and anniversary reissues.
The “Weekend of a Champion” that opens this weekend is a superlative film when compared to the original version purely because we (and both Stewart and Polanski) have the benefit of time through which to see this newer version. The Stewart-Polanski interview concluding the film throws the doors wide open on both the brave, heroic Stewart and the cool, cerebral and controversial Polanski.
After viewing the summer blockbuster “Rush” and its CGI-representation of Formula 1 racing, “Weekend Of A Champion” is a refreshingly realistic follow-up to that recent Hollywood film. Audiences will be drawn to the sights, sounds and charisma of the real world racing involved in Mr. Polanski’s opus. In addition, it is still hard to not fall under the spell of this film and its postcard-perfect images of the beautiful streets of Monaco. Stewart commands the screen and via the cinema-verité style of “Weekend of a Champion” as he pulls you into the car and behind the wheel with him.
The way Stewart describes how he drives a Formula 1 racecar—and in particular drive one on Monaco’s streets during its Grand Prix—is intriguing and enthralling. Rotating his hands, Stewart goes into detail on just how he will come out of a turn and avoid obstacles such as manhole covers.
Listening to Stewart describe his race strategy to win the Monaco Grand Prix is like overhearing the secret Allied plans to invade Normandy on June 5, 1944. To many, this may seem as exciting as watching paint dry. But to hear Stewart tell it feels like a secret one takes to the grave.
Racing in 1971 was a lot less safe than it is today, but this fact and its importance to Mr. Stewart does not come forward until the contemporary interview tacked on to this version after the original film’s conclusion. Understandably, the original film didn’t play up or go into how dangerous racing was back in the day, outside of Stewart’s casual comments here and there. When Stewart says, “Pump the front brakes and you can see the smoke coming out of them during the race,” that’s driver shorthand for how a driver can tell that he’s burned through his tires.
Forty years after the original film, when we see Polanski and Stewart in the new clip, it’s clear they are much older. But we also discover they were great buddies in the intervening years and that Stewart devoted much of his life to improving racing safety.
The contemporary interview adds significant resonance to the updated version of this film, including the neat idea of conducting that interview in the same hotel room as the pair’s 1971 interview. Stewart actually did his original interview in his underwear, but he is fully clothed the second time around. No pretentiousness or modesty for Jackie Stewart, then or now.
Stewart’s recollection of all the names of friends he lost in racing over the years is astounding. As you watch the original “Weekend of a Champion,” you don’t realize all the dangers involved in Formula 1 racing because you are seeing the sport through the eyes and hands of a master who, while aware of them, not surprisingly regards them simply as challenges inherent in the sport.
If racing isn’t the thing for you, this film still has a lot to offer. From the high-flying celebrity world of the early ‘70s with ex-Beatle Ringo Starr and Princess Grace making cameo appearances, to the intricacies of Stewart’s relationship with his future wife Helen (with Polanski shooting lots of footage of her), to the clever cinema-verité camera work Polanski employed to make his original documentary, “Weekend Of A Champion” will entertain you.
Jackie Stewart’s charm and little-boy enthusiasm is also a joy to watch, and those of us over forty will likely get a great kick out of seeing the Flying Scotsman fly on screen back in his heyday. Younger audiences will get a unique glimpse into what sports and sporting events were like before athletes became brands and when watching a sporting event like racing was nearly as risky as being a participant.
In short, the revamped version of “Weekend of a Champion” is a very intelligent film that straps you in and never lets you go.
“Weekend of a Champion” opens in New York City on Friday, November 22nd.
Running time: 93 minutes.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
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