Demon of the Derby

dir. Sharon Rutter

Opens Fri Aug 1

Hollywood Theater

This is the story of Ann Calvello, the firebrand flagship of the sporting pursuit known as roller derby. Once as popular as any other respectable (or otherwise) sport, roller derby reached its peak of popularity during the '50s and early '60s, attracting crowds of more than 50,000 live attendees and, occasionally, even beating the juggernaut Bonanza in television ratings. Among the badasses of the violent near-sport, Ann Calvello was the baddest-ass of them all.

Demon of the Derby takes a good, long look at Ann, a proto-punk who had spiky, colored hair and outrageous makeup before the Art Factory ever churned out a single print, and way prior to '77--imagine a conglomeration of Joan Jett, Evil Knievel, Shelley Winters, and Dennis Rodman. Through a series of interviews and vintage footage reels, the film portrays a woman who literally takes life by the balls and lives by her own terms. Choosing the Derby over nearly every other aspect of her life, Ann, now in her 70s, never quite puts down the rogue raconteur persona she adopted early on to inject some much-needed vitality into the often scrutinized sport. Even as she garners a slight appreciation in some circles for her undeniable achievements, we see her working as a grocery bagger for Safeway--which would be sad by any respect, except that Ann, by the virtuosity of sheer Diva Magic, pulls it off. She marches up and down the aisles of Safeway in heels and regalia as if she owned the store.

Along the way we see the struggle of a living legend, rightly seeking recognition and trying harder still to remain a part of something she helped to script and build. Like so many musicians, actors, and athletes from her era, she is victimized by her own fame and the absence of fiscal responsibility from promoters, managers, and team owners. The difference here is the insatiable Ann Calvello herself, refusing to play the victim while exhibiting the highest possible levels of ferocious tenacity and self-confidence. She is literally her own one-woman team.