Here is Bruce Brown, documentarian extraordinaire, who diverted from his usual subject of surfing to present another passion in his life, that of motorcycle racing. There are many forms of the sport played out across the world, though he will largely concentrate on what happens in the United States, starting with dirt bike racing where he traces the current career of the champion at the start of the year, Mert Lawwill. He is allowed to place a plate emblazoned with a "1" on his bike until the climax of the racing year, and his aim is to still be the holder of that title come that date. However, fickle fate, and bad luck with his vehicle, contrive to put obstacles in his way - but not every rider is having a tough time of it.
Brown will always be famed for The Endless Summer, for many the definitive surfing documentary that even non-converts will find a good watch, but among motorcycle enthusiasts, he perhaps bettered it by performing the same function for their preferred sport in On Any Sunday, so-called because that day of the week was when most races were run. He tells us at the start that four million Americans ride these machines, of all shapes and sizes - and the bikes too - but not everyone takes part in the contests that are spread out across the year. He took his equipment all over the nation to record what he saw there, and the finished article was an absorbing document in the way Summer was.
Not only that, but he travelled further afield too, not as much as the surfing movie would take him, but he did reach Spain where a Six Day Trial was held, detailing all the rules and regulations the competition laid down for the participants which sound so restrictive it's a miracle anyone wins. The rider Brown was interested in was Malcolm Smith, and this film was such a hit that it made him a celebrity thanks to its highlighting of his remarkable abilities on two wheels, which continued after this was made; he went on to become a global brand for his motorcycle business and charitable works. We watch Smith win time and again, breaking records and leaving his rivals in the dust - quite literally, as this was one of the dustiest movies ever created.
Yet while On Any Sunday may have been the making of Smith, and to an extent Lawwill, in the wider public consciousness, there was one man appearing who was already a megastar, and that was Steve McQueen. Brown fully admitted the sole reason he got interested in motorbikes in the first place was the movie star's ride at the end of The Great Escape, and as fate would have it the two men became friendly, with McQueen eventually assisting behind the scenes here as producer and putting up the budget to complete it. At the same time he was struggling with Le Mans, and you had the impression he was enviously regarding Brown's simple and cheap methods as a far more ideal way of conducting a work about racing; though this lacked any polish, it had a truly immediate quality that many a bigger project just would not have.
Brown simply went out with his 16mm camera and more or less started shooting when the races began, putting the sound effects on later in many sequences, with Dominic Frontiere, a seasoned composer for television, placing the finishing touches with a very of its time score that planted this straight in 1971. Even if the director's unpretentious, almost goofy narration also preserved it in its period, not what you would hear from a documentary all these years later unless it was a spoof, that footage of, say, a contest to drive up a steep hill that nobody had ever succeeded in doing, or the ice bikers with their spiked tyres, or the smalltown that gave itself over to a race with thousands of contestants, was so evocative any misgivings thanks to not being used to seeing docs made in this way would evaporate. There was the occasional helicopter shot, again well-deployed, but that feeling of being on the ground with these sportsmen was so vivid that it was more than a time capsule, it evoked the location and excitement of being there with unadorned flair and good humour.
[There are three featurettes on Second Sight's DVD, including one about McQueen and another revisiting the original. The Endless Summer has also been restored on Blu-ray.]