Friday, May 2, 2008

TriBeCa Diaries #4: Run For Your Life

I stepped into Judd Ehrlich's Run For Your Life not knowing anything about the history of the New York City marathon. I stepped out an educated man. The event was started by a charismatic, Romanian-born businessman named Fred Lebow, whose enthusiasm for running began the marathon's infancy in 1969. At that time, people on the street weren't used to seeing runners jogging alongside cars in clothes that looked like underwear. In 1970, when the first marathon was launched, the participants--no women allowed, either--just sprinted a few times around Central Park. After female athletes were accepted in 1971, and after the marathon's route was amended to follow a path that swept through all five boroughs in 1976, the fevered publicity surrounding the event began to launch its popularity.

All the while, Lebow--whom one friend says "ran like a duck, but was slower than a duck"--acted as press agent, detail man, and provocateur. He used the marathon to feather his own nest with fame and a constant array of young women (but no money--he was famously broke a lot of the time). But he also used it to help an ailing, bankrupt New York City find its footing and its pride once again. Using his mastery of event planning and salesmanship, he garnered an array of big-time sponsors and, by 1977, a 5000-strong army of runners hoping to complete the course. Nowadays, the crowd numbers close to 20,000 (and there's nothing like seeing all those people crunch across the Verrazano Bridge in the opening helicopter shot).

Run For Your Life does what all fine docs do: it recounts a story we've never heard, but which has massive historical implications. It gives us a main character worthy of our attention. It has a complex structure that doesn't follow events as they happened in a timeline, but as they relate to one another. And it inventively illustrates its story with perceptive interviews (with marathon champs Bill Rogers and Grete Weitz among them), archive footage that's well-edited (by Alison Shermin), and stunning graphic work (by Nicholas Vranzian) that casts still images and CGI work into an appropriately low-fi 1970s look. I also have to mention its incredible source-music soundtrack of past hit songs and present-day songs that should be hits.

I've never been a runner--I'm too busy watching movies, so I've always found its appeal a bit mystifying--but now after seeing the inspiring Run For Your Life, I think I know what its point is. And certainly, for Fred Lebow and the adoring friends who surrounded him, it was about passion. That's a good enough explanation for me.


Hepcat B said...

Sounds like a good doc, I wonder what percentage of sports fans consider going to see sports documentaries in the theater? I'm guessing not many which is a shame. I know TV is flooded with them, but I assume rarely of this quality - or about a figure this obscure. (Bring on more IMAX movies about the criminally underexposed Michael Jordan. Yay!?)

What do you mean when you describe the not-yet hits in the soundtrack? Are they 70's period nuggets or new songs?

Dean Treadway said...

The new songs are the not-yet hits, but there are some old real hits thrown in.

Dean Treadway