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Formula 1 and their drive to survive

Drive to Survive is a brilliant behind the scenes look at the world’s top motorsport. But can a Netflix documentary help save Formula 1?

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As a kid growing up in Indonesia, motor racing sat at the periphery of my sporting interests. In fact, I knew very little of it save the occasional clip on television. There was one exception, and that was Formula 1. Something about it grabbed my attention, and I remember vividly watching the Monaco Grand Prix as brightly colored cars raced through an exotic city I had never heard of. This was in the days of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, both untouchable in their craft. I didn’t understand the greater depths of Formula 1 then, but I knew that these two were immense, unstoppable forces in a sport where feats of skill and physics are only inches from catastrophe. I liked the fast cars, the great sounds, and the pageantry that came with the sport of millionaires.

It was 1989, when the Monaco Grand Prix was won by Senna, but his season was met with disappointment in Japan after being disqualified for missing a chicane. Prost won his third Championship that season. The rivalry between the two, heightened by the fact that they were teammates, made for the kind of drama you can only dream of scripting. And it was in part, why Formula 1 was such enthralling viewing.

It didn’t stay that way. The recent years have seen a decline in viewership, struggles and conflicts with Formula 1’s new ownership group – an ownership group that has received fresh criticism from the sport’s own promoters association (FOPA) – a flatlining in young viewers and to top it off, slower cars and a lack of competitiveness. It certainly doesn’t bode well from what you read. But Formula 1 isn’t quite ready to pit just yet. Like any great monolith of sport and media, demises are often exaggerated- at least that’s what they want you to think. Throughout the 2018 season, Formula 1 teamed up with Netflix to create and film a documentary about the season (a season won once again by Lewis Hamilton) and titled it Drive to Survive. An apt title that truly means many things.

Formula 1 fans are serious business. I am not a serious fan, rather, a casual one whose fandom waned after my initial connection. I don’t get into the minutiae of aerodynamic engineering, the details of every season and every driver, or the finer points of the constant rule changes, but I do enjoy good sports documentaries. Drive to Survive, like the terrific Sunderland Til I Die, is Netflix’s most recent entry into the field. By taking what HBO did so well for so long and giving it the new Netflix sheen, they have proven that sometimes letting the drama of reality unfold (with a nudge and a push), results in an infinitely better product. Drive to Survive is a 10-episode series, cut roughly into 30-40 minute episodes with season-long narrative arcs coupled with shorter episodic arcs, spliced between the 10. Mercedes and Ferrari aren’t featured, and so while we get passing glimpses of Lewis Hamilton, he does not feature in the documentary. Instead, we are given the narratives of the “best of the rest” (the battle for fourth and fifth place between longstanding French team Renault and upstart American battlers Haas), interwoven with interesting conflicts between oft-third place team Red Bull, and the rest of the championship ladder.

Netflix are fantastic at production. It’s proven in Drive to Survive. The access they were given (outside of Mercedes and Ferrari) is close to all-access, and the way the series unfolds is all glorious high-definition action, fast-paced adrenaline ballet. I didn’t know who Christian Horner was (Red Bull Racing’s Team Principal), or Cyril Abiteboul (Renault), but they’re given the spotlight and their hilariously ticky-tacky feud that encompasses everything from their team drivers, to their engines (Red Bull Racing had, until 2019, used Renault engines in their cars), is a microscope of what really goes on behind the scenes. These are the things that make Formula 1 interesting, and a reason why this documentary resonated with me as a casual fan. Like any sport, the personalities that clash, the memorable ones, become the stories that make the sport enduring. While the series shows plenty of race footage, the most captivating are those of the drivers away from the track, as they balance the incredible pressures of being a race car driver at its ultimate level. True, this co-production means that you’ll only get so far under the skin of the sport, but regardless of whether or not this series is one big shiny promo (what production isn’t?), it doesn’t take away from the results.

Red Bull vs Renault
Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Principal and Cyril Abiteboul, Renault Sport F1 Managing Director, really, really don’t like each other.

I cared about the careers and lives of upstart drivers like Esteban Ocon and Charles LeClerc, felt a connection to the tumultuous season of French driver Romain Grosjean (who will henceforce be known as “Crashy McCrasherson”), and I felt the pain and frustration of all-time great Fernando Alonso as he struggled to drag the apparent carcass of the once-great McLaren team (at the season’s conclusion, a handler tells Alonso as he’s talking that the press want him to “walk slower”, for what I assume is for better photographs and media, only for him to retort, “I want to be fast at least once this year”). It worked because of the personalities that make up the kaleidoscope of Formula 1, and because Netflix were able to craft and shape the reality into perfect storytelling.

It is this connection, this caring from casuals and occasional viewers that will help salvage Formula 1. You don’t have to care that the rules are constantly changing. You don’t have to know that the cars are slower (or faster) this year than they were last year. And you don’t have to know who Nigel Mansell is or that the Tyrell “six-wheeler” is still the coolest race car ever designed. You just have to like human stories, emotion, drama, and good documentary production.

As the Australian Grand Prix roared past my window a few weeks ago, I hoped that Daniel Ricciardo would succeed on his home turf. Not because he’s Australian, but because we got to see a little more of who he is away from the wheel (a good Aussie bloke and a fantastic driver who just needs a little bit of luck).

For the first time in a long time, I’m interested to see how the season unfolds. I know who the players behind the sparks, the speed, and the sounds are now. And thanks to Netflix’s Drive to Survive, I care once again about the pageantry, the extravagance, and the thrills of the sport of royalty.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.

Television

Homelander is humanity’s most accurate superhero

Amazon’s hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes is a painfully accurate takedown of humanity

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If you haven’t yet seen Amazon Studios’ hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes, proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen The Boys yet, why not? It’s not-so-quietly the best television show of 2019 and its painfully accurate depiction of what superheroes would really be like in our world is gloriously funny and poignant. You best get on it.

With that said, The Boys IS 2019’s best television show, and while it may not be the most easily digestible show (if you prefer your superhero television to be Supergirl type corny, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock), those who venture through its visceral 8-episode first season will no doubt be left in awe. Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, The Boys tells the story of a group of nogoodniks led by Karl Urban’s brute Billy Butcher, who takes the seemingly hapless Hughie (played by Jack Quaid) on a vigilante mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Along the way “The Boys” set out to expose the fake news facade of the superheroes in the series’ world. These so-called heroes, backed by mega-corporation Vought International, are Earth’s premier team of superheroes. On the surface, they act like the Marvel Avengers / DC Justice League team, but in reality, are just a colossal mess of frail egos and giant assholes whose appearances are kept up to keep the money-making wheels spinning.

The story unfolds in glorious violence, capped by slow-mo gory deaths, shattered limbs, and enough sex and psychotherapy to make old “Skinemax” television blush. But what’s most telling about the series is the accurate characterisation of what it means to be a hero in the real world. “The Seven” (Vought’s Avengers) are led by the very Captain America/Superman-esque Homelander; a stoic, blond, barrel-chested hero for America that waves and kisses babies on camera, but away from it, is a fragile, colossal asshole egomaniac with severe Freudian issues. The latter become one of the focal points of the series’ narrative arc and are a small but telling dimension of the layers you find within this show. He’s surrounded by likeminded assholes; sexual deviant The Deep (if one of the characters from Gossip Girl ended up becoming Aquaman), sexual deviant Translucent (if Invisible Man was a chronic sex-pest) and murdering drug-addict A-Train (if The Flash was… well, a murdering drug addict). The only one who presents with any form of likeability are Queen Maeve and newcomer Starlight. The latter, integral to the story, is a good girl Christian superhero who discovers like most of us, The Seven aren’t who they make out to be.

Over the eight episodes of the first season, we come to the sad and painful realization that if superheroes were to exist in our reality, that this would be it. Intentionally or not, this commentary is one of the most compelling parts of this series. It’s beautifully cynical, but at the same, cuts right to the heart of the truth of our society. The Marvel Universe has spoiled us with dreams of heroic saviors, but in reality, we would get and deserve much less.

Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes are often too good to be true; cavorting around like false prophets. In times when humanity turns against them (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Far From Home), they react with some level of empathy for the reactions of the general public. Superman exiles himself in Batman vs Superman while The Avengers attempt to self-police in Civil War; all are actions of self-sacrificing their worth for the greater good. Their hope is that public opinion will turn once people realize the truth. Homelander is nothing like that, and often in The Boys, his good public persona will reveal his true self the moment he faces situations that harm his likeness, value, and/or monetary worth. It’s how most people would react no matter how much they tell you they wouldn’t. In all of Homelander’s inhuman superpowers, his most telling characteristic are his most human ones; selfish, egotistical, greedy, self-absorbed. They are not positive qualities, but they are very real.

You may be thinking that this is an overly cynical view on humanity, but the old adage of the truth hurting is ever present through the series. The Boys‘ socio-political commentary isn’t even about specific politics or people- even though you can equate it to them. It’s broader, more sweeping in its assessment that no matter your political views, no matter your race or creed, you are nowhere near as heroic or “good” as you think you are. “The Boys” themselves, of course, are a band of anti-hero criminals and outcasts that help confirm that even the people “doing good” aren’t all that good themselves. As the series points out, we are all just different sides of the same coin.

It’s all just a helpful reminder that in a world filled with liars, charlatans, hacks, and grifters, there are no real heroes and those looking to become one just end up getting burned. The Boys is a compelling look into the mirror of society; refreshing, invigorating, and painfully true. It is the truth we are all afraid to face wrapped in relatable costumes and transient power. I suppose we could keep telling ourselves that we’re nothing like the people and “heroes” in The Boys, but then we’d just be lying to ourselves. It’s in part, what makes Homelander humanity’s most accurate superhero. If that’s not enough for you, then watch it for Karl Urban calling everyone a “c*nt” for eight episodes.

The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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Another Case of Willed Amnesia: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue

Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work

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At a concert in New Haven on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, someone in the crowd repeatedly shouted “Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!”, just as the artist was setting up for a reworked version of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Dylan, in character as ever, replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else.”

This story appears in Time Out of Mind by the late Ian Bell, Dylan’s greatest biographer. Bell wrote perceptively about that tour, its participants, and what it might have meant, if anything at all. It’s helpful to have a guide, as Dylan wasn’t especially clear on things at the time, and is even less so now. At least at first glance.

What, exactly, was that legendary tour all about? In an early scene in Martin Scorsese’s unmissable Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Dylan tells the viewer:

“It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it . . . I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born, you know?”

Here, separated by decades, are two amusing and obviously insincere denials of Dylan’s participation in his own tour. Not since Dylan growled “Must Be Santa” on the Christmas in the Heart album have so many fans been left scratching their heads. What the hell is he up to now?

With perspicacity, Bell described the tour as;

“a kind of erratic developing essay on identity, on disguises, on human contact. The concerts would also be, by turns, pretentious, acute, self-indulgent and enthralling. Rolling Thunder would become a piece of theatre, a radical artistic gesture, a travelling circus, a movable movie set, a gypsy caravan and the realisation, intermittently, of a superstar’s old dream of creative emancipation. That was the general idea, at any rate.”

Scorsese has brilliantly captured and expanded these ambitions. And it’s quite a clever setup. We’re introduced to the central cast: Joan Baez, whom Dylan memorably describes as looking “like she’s just come down from a meteorite”; Allan Ginsberg, the beat poet of piffle, whose empty philosophising hints that maybe the tour wasn’t really about anything serious at all; and the absolutely mesmerising Scarlet Rivera, whose allure and haunting violin steal the viewer’s attention in every scene.

The unknown Rivera, as the story goes, was exiting her building when Dylan saw her with a violin case. He invited her to an all-night rehearsal, and she eventually joined the tour and became famous. Even though it sounds like fiction, or at least imaginatively embellished, that story is actually true. Much of the rest of the film, the real stuff, anyway, is interspersed with some rather inventive bullshit.

Dylan and Scorsese begin to introduce some other characters and talking heads, and their participation should immediately cause the raising of eyebrows, as well as a wry smile.

Stefan van Dorp, a haughty European filmmaker who allegedly contributed to a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, appears frequently to offer insights, claim unrecognised credit, and disparage everyone else. His unused footage is what we’re watching, and he even seems to have been there, in 1975, chatting with Dylan, Patti Smith, and various concert-goers.

He’s an actor, though. They all are, even the real ones. At one point, the older Dylan misnames him as van Dorf. An underage and mischievous Sharon Stone was there, too, apparently, as well as the former Congressman Jack Tanner.

A number of guides have already arrived on the Internet, alerting viewers to what’s true and what’s fake. The giveaway, after all, was always in the title: A Bob Dylan Story. This was never going to be a documentary with a concern for historical veracity.

And nor should we expect it to be, really. A straightforward recounting of events as they happened would somehow seem, well, out of character. Dylan doesn’t do things twice. Bell called this willed amnesia – Dylan’s commitment to a performance in the moment, and then its abandonment. Despite its success, there was never a repeat of Rolling Thunder. Bell noted:

Dylan had no patience whatever for the idea that he might, now and then, retrace his steps. The revue meant a lot to him while it was happening; when it was gone, it was gone.”

The French writer Paul Valéry claimed that an artist never finishes a poem; he merely abandons it. Dylan’s willed amnesia is a kind of rejoinder to that. At the Rolling Thunder concerts, Dylan began to reimagine and rewrite his own songs with new lyrics, melodies, and meanings. Bell observed that Dylan had been toying with this beforehand, but in 1975, it became a permanent feature. In the documentary, we see and hear the country ballad “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” transformed into a blistering hard rock number. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” receives the same treatment, and a new energy. In “Tangled Up in Blue“, a change of voice, from first person to third, also seems to change everything.

Willed amnesia allows Dylan to reflect, at the finish, on what remains of the tour now:

“Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”

That’s true, in a sense. But it’s also true to say that Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work. It’s also a reminder, not that we really needed one, that no one, especially in what passes for music in today’s scene, does things like Bob Dylan. Despite his protestations, you certainly couldn’t mistake him for anyone else.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is streaming now on Netflix.

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