“Weekend of a Champion” is a new documentary film with a vintage documentary film embedded inside. Essentially, it is a restoration of the original 1972 documentary “Weekend Of A Champion” with a new interview between subject Jackie Stewart and Director Roman Polanski attached on the end. It would be really easy to dismiss this film as a retread and an opportunistic 40th anniversary reissue project, but that would pay a compliment to retread and anniversary reissues. The “Weekend of a Champion” which opens this weekend is a superlative film to the original version purely because we (and both Stewart and Polanski) have the benefit of time through which to see the newer version. The Stewart-Polanski interview concluding the film opens the doors wide open on both the brave, heroic Stewart and the cool, cerebral and controversial Polanski.
After seeing the summer blockbuster “Rush” and its CGI-representation of Formula 1 racing, “Weekend Of A Champion” is a refreshingly realistic follow-up to that Hollywood film. Audiences will be drawn to the sights, sounds and charisma of the real racing involved in Mr. Polanski’s film. It would be hard to not fall under the spell of the film and the beautiful streets of Monaco. Mr. Stewart commands the screen and via the cinema-verite style of “Weekend of a Champion,” he pulls you into the car and behind the wheel with him.
The way Stewart describes how he drives a Formula 1 race car and in particular drive one on Monaco’s streets during its Grand Prix (while in a golf cart) is intriguing and enthralling. Rotating his hands, Stewart goes into detail on just how he will come out of a turn and avoid obstacles such as manhole covers. Hearing Stewart describe his race strategy to win the Monaco Grand Prix is like hearing the secret plans to invade Normandy on June 5, 1944. To many that may be as exciting as watching paint dry, but to hear Stewart tell it feels like a secret one takes to the grave.
Racing in 1971 was a lot less safe than it is today, but this fact and its importance to Mr. Stewart does not come forward until the end interview after the original film is finished. And the original film didn’t play up or go into how dangerous it was, outside of Stewart’s comments here and there. When Stewart says, “Pump the front brakes and you can see the smoke coming of them during the race”… that is telling you how a driver could tell that he burned through his tires.
Seeing Polanski and Stewart forty years later, we know they are much older but we find out that they were great buddies in the intervening years and that Stewart devoted much of his life to improved racing safety. The modern interview adds much resonance to the film and it is a neat idea that the post-script interview was held in the same hotel room as their 1971 interview. Stewart actually did his original interview in his underwear, but he is fully-clothed the second time around. No pretentiousness or modesty for Jackie Stewart, then or now. Mr. Stewart’s reciting all the names of friends he lost in racing is astounding. Seeing the original “Weekend of a Champion,” you don’t realize all the dangers of Formula 1 because you are seeing them through the eyes and hands of a master.
If racing isn’t the thing for you, this film still does have a lot to offer. From the high-flying celebrity world of the early 70s with Ex-Beatle Ringo Starr and Princess Grace making appearances to the intricacies of Stewart’s relationship with his future wife Helen (and Polanski shooting lots of footage of her)… to the clever cinema-verite shooting Polanski employed to make his original documentary, “Weekend Of A Champion” will entertain you. Jackie Stewart’s charm and little-boy enthusiasm is a joy to watch and those of us over forty will likely get a great kick out of seeing the Flying Scotsman fly on screen. Younger audiences will get a great glimpse of what things were like before athletes became brands and watching a sporting event like racing was nearly as risky as being a participant. A very intelligent film that straps you in and never lets you go. Running time: 93 minutes.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
The film opens in New York City on Friday, November 22nd.