My Top 10 Motorcycle Movies

Last Sunday we got our first +0 Celsius day here in Montreal. Right on cue, our front porch started leaking. No matter how hard I try to keep the snow off the roof to prevent an ice dam from forming, we inevitably get some leaking in The Big Melt each spring. I know that our Canadian winter still has at least one big snowstorm and several sub-zero days left in her, but it’s starting to feel a bit like spring.

For Canadians, spring comes to us as a sixth sense, weeks before it actually arrives, and it has little to do with the calendar. It’s in the particular quality of sunlight, the texture of the air, and a certain . . . ah hem . . . boost in libido. It won’t be long—three weeks to be exact—before we are legally allowed back on the road!

Next weekend would have been The Montreal Moto Show, our unofficial start of the season. But it has been cancelled, of course, leaving motorcyclists in these parts feeling like the dog running after the absent ball from a fake throw. If you are excited about the start of the season but have nowhere to direct that energy, try watching a good motorcycle movie. Here are my top ten, in no particular order.

One Week (Michael McGowan, director)

I love this movie for the concept—man rides motorcycle across Canada. That happens to be a lifelong dream of mine, so no wonder I love it. You see him pass through iconic places, like Mattawa with its roadside wood carvings, the giant goose at Wawa, and across the prairies. This is pure Canadiana. Gord Downie even makes a cameo sharing a doob at a roadside motel. What’s not to like? Well, the plot is a bit contrived, and of course he has to be riding a classic Norton and wearing goggles. What era are we in again? Oh yeah, the 21st Century. Never mind, it’s a touching story and my beautiful country is the main character in this film.

Road (Michael Hewitt & Dermot Lavery, co-directors)

Have you heard of the Tourist Trophy, better knows as the TT? Duh! Well, I hadn’t before I started riding, so I’ll forgive you if you haven’t. It’s the oldest and most famous road race in the world, sort of the Indy 500 for road racers. It takes place on the Isle of Man in Ireland because that was (perhaps still is) the only place in Great Britain without legal speed limits on the roads. This movie is about one family in particular, The Dunlops, and their storied history with the race. If you like sport bikes and racing and death-defying speed, you will enjoy this film. The only downside is that inevitably death cannot be defied.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, director)

This biopic is based on the book of the same name. It chronicles Ernesto (better known later as Che) Guevara’s travels through Argentina in 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado on La Ponderosa (The Mighty One), a Norton 500. I wrote a review of the book and the movie is one of the better adaptations from print to film. In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age story in which the young Che is exposed for the first time to the exploitation and oppression of Argentina’s peasants and other marginalized groups, like the country’s lepers, and is radicalized. Whether you are Left-leaning or just wear Che’s image on your T-shirt as fashion, you will enjoy this film. The only downside as a motorcycle movie is that—spoiler alert—despite the title of the movie, they are forced to abandon La Ponderosa earlier than we or I’m sure they would like.

The Fastest Indian (Roger Donaldson, director)

This movie stars Anthony Hopkins. Say no more. If you’re having a hard time imagining him as a grease monkey, well, after watching him play a fuddy-duddy tight-ass in Howard’s End, I had a pretty hard time imagining him as a psychopathic cannibal in Silence of the Lambs. But he pulled it off, and he pulls this off too. He plays Burt Munro, a New Zealander who heavily modifies his 1920 Indian Scout and goes for the land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats. So he not only has to build a machine capable of going that fast but also get it halfway around the world to the salt flats in Utah. Oh yeah, and then actually ride it over 200 mph. There’s really no downside to this film; it brings Hollywood-level production quality, acting, and direction to a great story.

On Any Sunday (Bruce Brown) & On Any Sunday, The Next Chapter (Dana Brown)

I include On Any Sunday somewhat reluctantly. It’s getting a little old, as far as documentaries go, but I recognize its importance in its day for bringing to Americans the sport and lifestyle of motorcycling when previously their assumptions were based on films like the over-rated Easy Rider. Director Bruce Brown showed a popular audience that motorcycling was more than sex, drugs, and sticking it to The Man, although Harley has nurtured that image pretty successfully into a marketing strategy. Some of Brown’s footage predates the GoPro camera as he literally taped a clunky 1970’s camera onto the helmet of flat track racers to get the rider’s perspective. His son, Dana Brown, took up the reins and produced On Any Sunday, the Next Chapter (2014), which brings us up to speed, so to speak, with what’s happening in the motorcycling world today. The good thing about these films is that they are a smorgasbord of the different types of riding; the downside is that we can’t gorge on any one kind.

Dust To Glory (Dana Brown, director)

Speaking of Dana Brown, in Dust To Glory, he steps out of his father footsteps and takes on a subject of his own: the Baja 1000. Think Dakar Lite. Perhaps the organizers won’t appreciate me referring to their race in those terms, or maybe they will. It’s a dirt race like the Dakar but instead of being 10,000 kilometers long and ending in Dakar, it’s between 650 to 900 miles long (depending on the particular route) and takes place down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. It must be incredibly difficult to get good footage of a race like this, but Brown does it with the help of a team of photographers, some bike-mounted cameras, and a hired helicopter. There are different categories, and a few brave souls attempt the whole thing on their own. Dust to Glory in part follows one such contestant, Chad McQueen—Steve McQueen’s son. Charles Atlas said only losers get sand in their face. I guess he never raced dirt bikes.

Dream Racer (Simon Lee, director)

There is no shortage of movies about the Dakar Rally. Perhaps that’s because it is the most grueling, challenging, and dangerous off-road race in the world, and just completing it often produces a story worthy of a feature-length documentary. Dream Racer is about Christophe Barriere-Varju’s attempt to complete the race in 2011. He doesn’t have a team of mechanics and support crew behind him, just one filmmaker, Simon Lee, to document his Herculean effort. Just getting the money together to buy the bike and pay the entrance fee, a mere $80,000, is a feat unto itself, then he has to ship everything over to South America, all while trying to train for the two-week race. Some reviews say there should be more race footage, but they miss the point. The film really is about the power of the human spirit as we watch Christophe single-handedly face the various obstacles standing in his way, including grief. If you are feeling a little low mid-February, mid-pandemic, and just getting outside has become a challenge, watch this film and imagine your biggest dream, whatever it may be. You will be inspired.

The Greasy Hands Preachers (Clément Beauvais, director)

If you could be a bike, what kind of bike would you be? Probably one that is similar to the one you ride. That’s because, like our pets, we see our bikes as a reflection of ourselves. And since each of us is unique, the best bike is one that does not come off the end of the factory line but is custom built. A custom bike is one that goes beyond mere modification but is designed, manufactured, and built from the frame up. Greasy Hands Preachers celebrates the mechanical aspect of riding. If you like getting your hands greasy, as the title suggests, you will enjoy this film. Even if you don’t but have been arrested mid-stride by a bike on the showroom floor, as I have, you will enjoy it. The film is about bike culture, how it gets under your skin in a symbiotic dance which very well may leave you wondering whether you or the bike is leading. It’s also got the coolest trailer I know.

Riding Solo to the Top of the World (Gaurav Jani, director)

You may have noticed that, aside from the cross-Canada One Week, none of these movies so far are about adventure riding. So the last two I dedicate to my favourite type of riding. Does adventure riding have to contain risk, challenge, and hardship? No, I definitely believe it does not, but if it does, it makes for a better story. In 2006, Gaurav Jani loaded up his 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet and headed off alone from Mumbai to the Changthang Plateau in Ladakh, bordering China. You’d think that, knowing he was going to those altitudes, he would have invested in a fuel-injected bike, but he trusts his carbureted Bullet, which conks out at 16,000 feet, so he has to push. If that were not enough, he has to film himself pushing, since he is his own film crew. This is no trip to Starbucks. Many sections of this challenging terrain have to be ridden twice: once to set up the camera, and once to film. The reward, however, is a remarkable piece of cinematography that documents his journey to the top of the world and, more importantly, the depths of himself.

Somewhere Else Tomorrow (Daniel Rintz, director)

Okay, maybe I have saved the best for last. This movie starts off simply and slowly enough, documenting two blokes who decide to ride around the world after completing their degrees. Ho hum. But soon our filmmaker loses his riding companion and goes it alone. This is where the movie begins to get really interesting so make sure you stick with it. I have found that travelling solo adds another whole dimension to the journey, and so does Rintz. There is something about the vulnerability of being alone that adds an edge, and in Rintz’s case, he happens to break down in one of the most dangerous places on earth, about 15 miles from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Rintz is forced to surrender to faith, not in God but humanity, and comes out of the experience a changed man. Or perhaps I should say he starts out a boy and becomes a man. I watched this the other night with my wife who is not a motorcyclist but a photographer, and I know the filming is good when even she is captivated by some of the footage. It really is astounding and a great story. If you like travel of any kind, you will enjoy this film. It is the perfect antidote to 11 months of Covid confinement and will definitely inspire you to “get out there and ride,” as Jim Martin says at the end of every episode of Adventure Rider Radio.

I haven’t bothered to cite the awards and accolades of each of these films because they are all worth watching, trust me. And sorry, I haven’t bothered to list where you can find each because that would have taken a lot of work, and services differ depending on where you are. Here in Canada, I found a surprising number of them on Prime, so if you are a citizen of the Great White North, start there. For others, you’ll have to do a little sleuthing.

Did I miss one of your favourites? I’ve watched all these so am looking for something to get me through the next month. Do post your favourites in the comments section below, and stay safe—not so much on the bike as from Covid. We are into the home-stretch folks, and hopefully this past year will soon be just an unpleasant memory.

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