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A Rad Reunion

I pedaled leisurely rather than furiously, making no quick turns, hopping over no jutting tree roots, never trying to weave in and out of the other riders. But there I was, on the Helltrack qualifying course, riding BMX with the likes of Eddie Fiola, Martin Aparijo, Kevin Hull and Everett and Beatle Rosecrans. Twenty-five years after the movie that changed BMX forever, I was celebrating with some of the movie’s star stunt riders, who despite a lifetime of crashes, bruises and breaks are still nimble magicians on bicycles, none of them seeming to be anywhere near as old as their late 40s.

The northern August sun had me sweating plenty riding around Calgary’s Bowness Park, the location used for much of the filming of Rad, the 1986 Hal Needham picture that slowly and surely – in stark contrast to the breakneck pace of the bicycle racing it showcased – has become one of the most beloved cult films of all time. Taking in just $2 million at the box office and receiving what, in the film’s parlance, would be deemed uniformly “bogus” reviews, Rad nonetheless has passed the last quarter century steadily growing its small army of utterly devoted fans. I’m one of them, still trying to answer the what and the why of super-fandom. But you can’t explain magic – which Rad keeps dishing my way in spades – and because I couldn’t imagine not going, I flew to Calgary to join the celebration.

Rad 25 – a festival-cum-reunion organized by the Calgary Underground Film Festival, themovierad.com and City of Cochrane – brought together the movie’s director, producer, writer, stars, BMX stunt riders and fans to recapture the joy of its underdog story, the loose and kitschy cool of its 1980s dialogue and music and the awesomeness of its unprecedented BMX stunts. Rad unquestionably changed bicycle culture forever. But because it gave the emerging BMX subculture its high-gloss, Hollywood introduction to the rest of the world, more than most films, Rad also changed people’s lives forever.

Rad is the story of Christopher “Cru” Jones, a small-town paperboy who performs a “radical miracle” to beat BMX’s golden boy Bart Taylor, winning Helltrack and the heart of fellow biker Christian Holly. Weaving an underdog story together with a love story, the film is completely predictable, but handles its formulaic elements with enough gusto, personality and astonishing bicycle tricks to make that charge irrelevant. It borrows cutting-edge, daredevil cool from the BMX riders who inspired Sam Bernard’s script. And in Hollywood’s most legendary stuntman Hal Needham, the film had the precise director it needed to handle balls-out action.

Needham grew up the son of sharecroppers in Arkansas, ambitious out of necessity. He worked as a tree-topper out of high school and was a paratrooper in the Korean War. He found his way into the movie business, doubling John Wayne and Burt Reynolds as Hollywood’s top paid stuntman (a career he details in the new memoir Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life). He did it all – cars, planes, motorcycles – never turning down a stunt, and carved his niche out of that versatility.

Needham progressed to stunt coordinator and second-unit director for action scenes before breaking out on his own, writing and directing his friend Reynolds in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit. Needham’s action-oriented versatility showed as a director as well. Though none of his pictures were ever the type to fall into Oscar consideration, they have an easygoing charm. More importantly, for those who like a bit of adrenaline laced into their cinema, Needham’s films simply look awesome.

“When they gave me the script for Rad, I compared one to the other and got a hold of some of the pros and talked about what they could and couldn’t do,” says Needham, now 80. “At that time, I’d seen a few BMX races on TV, but all that it was was a track and they’d race 100 yards when they’d drop the gate.”

If it weren’t for Rad and the story of Helltrack – “the most diabolical combination of jumps, turns and obstacles yet created to test the world’s best BMX riders” – the sport might never have stumbled upon the idea of fusing racing and stunts to such an extreme degree. Needham set the riders on edge from the start with Helltrack – its 25-foot near-vertical drop was tougher than anyone had ridden before. “When I built the wall, the pros said it wasn’t a problem. Then they got on top and said ‘What the hell is this?’”

Beatle Rosecrans – all of 16 at the time – became the first rider to tackle the wall. But even that took baby steps. Rosecrans started first by dropping in from atop a ladder for his first few tries, getting higher each time until he was ready for the full drop. “After he did it, being the youngest guy out there, everybody else had to do it,” Needham says.

Needham continued trying to think of new tricks that hadn’t been done. For the film’s signature trick – the backflip – he turned to Jose Yanez of Phoenix. Yanez wasn’t a longtime BMX rider but instead a top high school gymnast who thought he could perform a trick nobody else had even tried. With a new bike and a small launch ramp, Yanez started working on his trick, flipping into the Salt River until he had perfected the maneuver. Yanez unveiled his backflip publicly a few months before Rad started production and the film’s creative team wrote the trick into the plot, first as the trick that Cru labors on but can’t quite get and then as a dramatic turning point in the Helltrack race itself.

Rad should have hit the heights of those other touchstones of 1980s Hollywood kid cinema like The Goonies, Stand By Me and The Karate Kid. They’re all good, heart-warming stories of determination and hard work. I first saw Rad at somebody’s birthday sleepover, probably with one of those other classics. It was my brother, though, who actually owned the VHS copy of the movie in our house. He’d gotten it for Christmas; my gift was Hoosiers, a remarkably similar film about small-town kids achieving great success against long odds.

Believing in yourself seemed to be the core message in kids-oriented movies of that era and when the audience inevitably identifies with the stubborn confidence and determination of those iconic central characters, the message is internalized. That’s the feel-good formula that paid out huge for most of those films, but for some reason not for Rad.

What held Rad back? It wasn’t the newness of its subject matter. While Rad was the first (and still undeniably the best) movie to deal with BMX, the sport was hardly unknown. Besides, The Karate Kid’s martial arts focus hardly deterred it from huge success, earning more than $90 million at the box office and still spawning unnecessary sequels. Rad was simply a studio afterthought, filmed on a tiny budget and left for dead as soon as it didn’t catch fire at the box office.

And it continues to be treated that way. It’s that rarity of rarities, a film that was never made available on DVD and therefore not susceptible to the rip-and-share protocol that sustains fans of other cult movies when they go out of print. Despite the fact that Rad’s devotees will clearly travel thousands of miles to express their affection, access to its pleasures is severely restricted. Then again, perhaps that’s why the film’s fans will go so far to demonstrate their support.

Needham, the stuntman-turned-director, had success with his own sort of formula, so at least he didn’t encounter much the interference, which is certainly key to the films endurance. It was Needham’s eye for action that made Rad something altogether different than just a little underdog story. Because the film was done right – using the top pros, with masterful cinematography and impeccable action sequences – it was every bit as thrilling for BMX fans as the factory showcase tapes that were available back then. “To photograph a big race and make it exciting is tough to do, but we did a hell of a job,” he says. “We had so many cuts of wheels and jumps and guys sideways in the air to make it look exciting.”

Needham had pretty much given up on the film after its poor box office showing, but life came with the home video market. Bicycle shops across the country started selling the videotape. So by introducing BMX to a larger audience, Rad gave the sport an extraordinary push, one that the BMX subculture in turn gave back to Rad, extending its life with an entirely different sort of relevance. No other movie exists as such easy and universal shorthand for a subculture. Rather than exploit the emerging BMX culture – Hollywood’s typical modus operandi – the circumstances of Rad’s creation and distribution guaranteed that it would seen as a document of absolute purity, going straight to the sport’s early heroes to bring the story to life.

Plus, notes Jeremy Moser from themovierad.com, for all its messing around in the dirt, the film wasn’t just a masculine affair. Becky rides her own paper route just as Cru and Luke do. And Laughlin’s Christian Holly was a BMX figurehead equal in stature to Bart Taylor. In the film, it’s actually Christian – she of the gender-neutral name who teaches Cru what he needed to make his backflip break through. “A boy and his sister were the same. They could watch the movie on the couch together,” Moser says.

It helps that Rad’s dialogue and plot are so lean and propulsive. After Christian chastises Cru with the cutting “I thought you were a man” line, there isn’t any wasted fretting on Cru’s part, nothing to indicate hours of misery leading to a tough decision. The film simply cuts to a newspaper on a porch, showing that he’s made up his mind to – if nothing else – complete the perfect paper route. That lack of sentimentality sets the film apart from other 80s fare. Maybe that explains its lack of success at the box office when it was first released. But, if so, it also clues us in to Rad’s staying power. “People think it’s a cult classic and I agree with that. Look at what it’s done to BMX and the fans,” Needham says. “I don’t count the film community. I count the public, who are involved with it in their hearts.”

The roots of Rad 25 trace to Moser’s themovierad.com, a fansite clearinghouse of all things Rad, including a signed copy of Bernard’s script that fans can read in its entirety. Moser started the summer of 1985 as a 14-year-old BMX kid living in Richmond, Virginia and ended it a California resident who’d soon see his face on screen and his name in the credits of Rad. His family met the GT riders on tour and his mom clicked right away with team manager Everett Rosecrans. Soon he was off to California, but not for long. “We were in California for about a day and loaded up our motor home and drove up to Canada to be in the movie Rad. We weren’t even quite sure what it was all about,” Moser says.

Moser has collected more Rad memorabilia than anybody – his signed copy of the script is written to the picture’s biggest fan – and set up his website in May 2010 to showcase the collection in a single place. In doing so, Moser also created a single place for Rad fans to focus their attention, which had been simmering for years in hopes of a DVD release. It’s what he calls the “epicenter for the old school BMX culture resurgence.” He adds that, “the passion from everybody about the film has always been there. I think it got a little more magnified and a little clearer once I started themovierad.com.”

Moser’s website brought him to the attention of Lieberman, Calgary’s go-to fanatic for film events, and Kurt Alksne, an Alberta native and Rad fan now working for the City of Cochrane. The trio met for the first time more than a year before the festival to start the daunting process of presenting an all-Rad weekend. The agenda grew to include four film screenings, VIP guests, cast-and-crew Q&A sessions, location BMX rides, a local freestyle contest, with a year of behind-the-scenes coordination work of soliciting sponsors, organizing flights, hotels and local transportation. “The surprise for me out of all this was the number of locals here in Canada who just love it. This changed people’s lives,” Moser said. “You can’t be more excited about that, when you can literally make someone a different person.”

Much of Moser’s collection was on view as sort of a mini museum at Calgary’s BMX Gallery. Props, posters, stills, production notes and of course “those funny looking bicycles” lined the shop’s hallway. About twenty fan-made posters entered in a contest hung on display. A scale model of Helltrack made the race course seem so much more difficult. Fans trickled in Friday afternoon, taking photos of the original artifacts from the movie that held such a strong hold over them for twenty-five years.

“There hasn’t been anything better. That’s just a fact,” Moser says. “We were all kids and freestyle was very new and we were all aspiring to do this. We’re all now in our 40s but we were very impressionable then and it just stuck with people. The people who were here are definitely die-hard fans. The ones who weren’t are now.”

BMX bikes are goofy on first look. They seem way, way too small for the people riding them. The tires are small in diameter yet almost comically thick, necessary to support the riders’ frequent landings. The pegs on the front and back wheels jut out incongruously. The seats, especially now, are like a physical trait that evolution hasn’t gotten around to getting rid of yet. Most riders have their seats set low and slanted backwards, mostly just to get them out of the way. Sitting takes up just the slimmest portion of a BMX rider’s time.

Nearly all the Rad riders I met – Fiola, Aparijo, the Rosecrans duo, festival organizer Jeremy Moser – are just like most of the skaters and BMXers I’ve ever known. They’re mischievous jokers, class-clown types exchanging partners-in-crime glances, with an inside joke ready for most every occasion. Partly because of that attitude and partly because they’re superb athletes, they don’t come close to looking or acting like they’re in their mid or late 40s.

“BMX is about people riding together,” says Fiola, whose mohawk-styled helmet is one of the film’s strongest statements about just how cool BMX riders are. “When you got out of the house or when you got out of school, you were going to go over to your friend’s house and say ‘Hey, let’s go ride.’ The movie Rad brought that camaraderie together really well. This weekend, after seeing everybody coming together, I thought it was just icing on the cake.”

For my part, I came to Rad as a regular kid in the 80s. Sure I had a BMX bike and I rode it around the forest trails where I grew up, until I got a mountain bike better-suited for the terrain. But I was no expert on the subculture. Still, I devoured Rad. Devoured it for the story, devoured it for the music, devoured it for the endlessly quotable 80s slang. I devoured it because a kid that age has to devour something.

I was nuts about Star Wars too, and the Hardy Boys and baseball cards and the Beach Boys. Rad wasn’t close to being the only thing in my cultural sphere, but it stuck around longer and stronger than most everything else. When I was 16 and started driving, I made an audio cassette tape of the entire movie to play in my Datsun B210. Why? ‘Cause it was ridiculous and it was Rad – the same reason I flew to Calgary to the soak in the film for an entire weekend 15 years later.

The funny thing is how much I never knew about the movie until Rad 25 came along. For one, I didn’t know the move was filmed in Canada. Cochrane on film sure looks line Anytown, U.S.A. I didn’t know much about Hal Needham’s career. I didn’t even really wonder what happened to Bill Allen (acting to this day), or Jamie Clark (a world-class skier turned professional mountaineer – and one hell of an engaging public speaker). I was clueless about H.B. Haggerty’s colorful past as a football player and professional wrestler. I’ve never seen another movie with the great Jack Weston. It troubled me that Ray Walston, whose character provides crucial assistance, could also play an asshole teacher in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

I didn’t know that those Helltrack riders whose names were announced at the beginning of the race were and are legendary in the sport. Frankly, I’ve never been able to name a single BMX trick that isn’t self-explanatory, like the backflip or 360. Or cared to. For me, it was purely the movie, and it was pretty much frozen in time. I thought it should be. And for 25 years I was right. But riding on that hallowed ground in Bowness park, I realized that I wasn’t just a fan, I was part of the family of Rad. I’d always been, it just took this “reunion” to put it into context for me.

Back home in Arizona, my brother put into the right words that general feeling of youthful elation that had been buoying me all weekend: “I really want our twenty-years-younger selves to get a kick out of this.” Quite right. If you’d told me at 12 I would meet Cru Jones and Luke and ride with Rad’s best-of-the-best, I’d have marked down the date and started a countdown years in advance. I got a Rad 25 poster signed by all the principles who made it for the weekend. I wasn’t going to, but Saturday morning I started thinking about that kid I’d been. He would’ve done it, so I grabbed the sharpie and poster and went around, waiting in line behind “kids” both younger and older than I am.

After the weekend, I changed my Facebook profile picture to a shot of me with Bill Allen. I couldn’t help it. I was blown away at not just meeting so many members of the cast and crew, but also with how phenomenally engaging they all were with the fans. Autographs, photos, handshakes, all weekend long. Allen, who had caught Needham’s eye acting in an episode of Hill Street Blues, continues as an actor and a musician, but will be forever recognizable as Cru Jones.

That recognition is increasingly coming from a whole new generation of BMX riders and Rad fans. Rad25 coincided with regional Canadian races Saturday morning on one track in Cochrane, and a big freestyle contest at the skate park across town that afternoon. Kids from 5 to current sponsored riders in their late teens are all fluent in Rad and flocked to the actors and riders.

The day’s shift from the dirt BMX racing track to the skate park illustrates just how groundbreaking RAD was in its combination of wildly different riding styles. Racing, flatland, freestyle and street riding all still remain fairly separate pursuits, but were united in Rad under Needham’s Helltrack concept.

The depth of movie fandom – or in anything, really – can be measured by the devotion and interest adherents show to even the smallest bits of minutiae. Sunday’s closing ride proved that clearly for the roughly 100 people who had shown up for the event. On a BMX cruiser borrowed from the Vans Team, I rode along as locals pointed out the different spots that had been in the film and performers from the movie told inside stories about the film’s locations. We saw the fire hydrant at the corner of the movie’s opening scene, where a van drops off the newspapers for Cru, Luke and Becky to deliver. We asked a clueless homeowner to say “I told you a million times, the porch!” at the house where the wild-armed Cru keeps missing with the newspaper.

The pink elephant sprinkler from the movie has been moved, but you can still see a ring in the grass where it sat. Aparijo crouched down to mimic a sprinkler. The section of concrete drainage used in the film for “ass-sliding” is gone, but that didn’t stop just about everybody from taking pictures of the vacant river bank where it once stood. Then the whole group posed for a series of pictures where Helltrack once stood.

The whole weekend was filmed by the Calgary Underground Film Festival and the production crew behind A Rad Documentary were on hand as well, recording pretty much non-stop. In lieu of an actual DVD edition of Rad, at least I’ll actually be able to own a film about the film soon. And participating in some of the events that will one day be a part of the official Rad was nearly as good as being in the film itself.

Seeing all the film’s riders back together after a quarter century, pedaling with dozens of people who wanted to pick their brains for event the tiniest bit of Rad knowledge is proof enough that the film has undergone a profound metamorphosis. We live at a time when the people who really are about something – a film, an album, a brand of hot sauce – can make it come back from the dead no matter how steep the odds. Sometimes, as in the case of The Beach Boys’ infamously shelved Smile project, they can even bring to life what was never officially born to begin with.

That’s why, whatever your cultural preferences, the story of Rad should be an inspiration. A film that seemed likely to be forgotten in less time than it took to make somehow became not only a cornerstone of BMX culture, but a testament to trying hard enough to make the impossible come true.

“Bikes have been our lives, since we were kids. We had dreams of being the very best,” said Aparijo. “We shot the movie and then we left the movie behind. It was what it was. You had to be there to experience it. And now you guys are part of this. You get a small taste of it, but this is a magical moment right now. It’s a brotherhood right now.”

Published Sept. 27, 2011 in Souciant Magazine. 

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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