Outwardly, 'Road' is about two generations of the famous road racing family, the Dunlops. Starting with Joey and his younger brother Robert, then adding Robert's racing sons, William and Michael. The film quickly moves along to match the extreme euphoria and deepest depths of road racing itself. It's a warts and all look at the racers who compete in one of the most dangerous forms of motorsport.
However, the film is so much more than racing. It's about the bonds between brothers, fathers, sons, wives, family, and friends. It's a celebration of overcoming tragedy, of unshakable trust, and everlasting love. 'Road' is the perfect tribute to rider and machine, to why they race, and why we watch.
Narrated by Liam Neeson, the movie starts out with the first racing generation of Dunlops, Joey and Robert. Starting out as racing for fun in the late '60's with friend Frank Kennedy, and soon to be brother-in-law, Mervyn Robinson, all four were soon bitten by the racing bug, and started to compete in the 1970's. Robert being 8 years younger than Joey, first raced competitively in 1979. Tragedy struck in 1979 with the death of Frank, and in 1980, the death of Mervyn at the Northwest 200.
That's when the Dunlops had to make up their minds and decide why they raced. I don't think they really had a choice but to continue. As several friends and family members pointed out in the film, it was in their blood by that point. For those of us who have known close family or friends who take part in riskier events than most, whether it's mountain climbing, exploring the Antarctic, or racing, you know at a certain point, you let them go. You accept what they are, and what they have chosen to do.
Two weeks after his brother-in-law's death, Joey went out and raced in the Isle of Man TT. He would become world champion for the 5th time in a row at that event.
Robert's career soon picked up steam as well. He raced short track and road, but road racing was where the Dunlops both belonged. Racking up wins and podium finishes along with his brother, Robert had a great career until he was sidelined in a horrific accident in 1994. While racing in the IOM TT, a defective back wheel came off his bike. He slammed into a stone wall at speeds approaching 200 miles an hour. The film shows the wheel coming off his bike, and lets you imagine the rest. One of the best decisions the filmmakers made was to include close friend and mentor, Liam Beckett, to help tell the Dunlop family history. Listening to Liam describe the tragic effects of Robert's accident is chilling. Robert would go on to race again, but never at the levels he once did. He was lucky to have survived, much less walk or race. In 1998, Robert would famously make a come back racing a 125 CC bike in the Northwest 200. Being back on the bike was part of what helped Robert heal. If anything, road racing is filled with the darkest of irony. What doesn't kill you, heals you.
By this point in the documentary, we have seen highlights from Joey's career, as well as a small bit on his humanitarian work. I was surprised that his charity work, for which he was awarded an OBE, was barely mentioned. For me, that's one of the best things about the man. He would load up his van with food and supplies and drive to Eastern Europe to deliver aid to Romania, Bosnia, and Albania. Can you imagine a world champion in any series doing something like that in this day and age? No, and neither can I. Joey was a world champion, humanitarian, and brave on levels that are barely comprehensible to the common man. Yet he was just a common man who liked to race. Even as his feats became world renowned, and his fame grew, he remained humble. He was known to sleep in that very van at races instead of resting at beautiful hotel suits.
In July 2000, Joey would compete in a race in a heavily wooded area of Estonia. With road conditions changing due to rainy weather, Joey would set out for his last race. He died when his bike slammed into a tree just a few inches off course. The telling of the story again from family and friends in the film, is harrowing. There was no one like him. As a 26 time winner at the Isle of Man TT, there might not ever be. His funeral was attended by an estimated 50,000 people.
Six weeks after his brother's death, Robert would race again. By 2004, his sons, William and Michael would start their own road racing careers. Eventually they would race side by side with their Dad. They were with him the evening of his fatal accident at the NW 200 practice in 2008. They both felt like something was wrong with their father's bike. William saw smoke coming out of the bike, and raced to catch up to his Dad. It was too late. By the time his caught up to his father, Robert's bike engine had seized up, tossing him off, and onto the road. Robert Dunlop would die on May 18, 2008.
Two days later, Robert's sons would take to the grid of the Northwest 200 race, going against race officials who had banned them. Once they were on the grid, there was no way to take them off without causing a scene. William's bike wouldn't start, but Michael took off like the wind. From the very first to the very last part of the race, Michael would lead and win. He would break down and cry for quite sometime afterwards.
'Road' ends with us watching Michael and William continue on in their father's and uncle's legacy. It is a beautiful, powerful, emotionally moving piece of work. While haunting in parts, there's so much joy in watching these men do what they do, and how they live their lives, that in the end, 'Road' feels more like a celebration of life and how it can be lived by those who chose to race on the edge. A thousand times, Bravo.
So far, 'Road' is scheduled to be released in the UK only, on June 11th. Hopefully the film will make times way stateside through cable and DVD. The official movie site is http://www.doublebandfilms.com.
Heather is a fan of all things 2 and 4 wheeled. You can find her nattering away on Twitter @McNewbie1.