This is Gregg Valentino, and I’m sure you won’t argue with his assertion that he has the world’s biggest biceps. He’s part of the cast of last year’s acclaimed documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger*, a group of people who vary in musculature but cumulatively make a pretty powerful case that, bacne aside, steroids are one of the most harmless substances to be demonised in the War on Drugs.
Directed by Chris Bell, a former writer for the WWE and part of a trio of steroid using brothers, the film is a quiet marvel, putting its director front-and-centre a la Michael Moore, but never once stooping to polemicism of the latter, and as a result his film is far more effective.
Which is not to say that it lacks for raw entertainment. Valentino is a freak of nature, of that there’s no doubt, but he’s also funny and surprisingly self-aware: “Do you think girls look at me and go ‘oh my God, that’s hot!”. He’s not alone either. The film is predominantly composed of talking heads and vintage film footage, and is wildly successful on both counts.
The clips are pretty amazing. Particularly Ben Affleck pre-fame from an HBO show called Lifestories: families in Crisis, hamming it to the hilt as a ‘roid raging high school football player.
Acting, readers. It is an art form. But the clips, including plenty of classic Hogan, Schwarzenegger and Stallone, are only window dressing to the ‘roided up acolytes, rogue medics and self-serving politicos (expected: W, the Governator. Less so: Biden) who make capital out of the issue.
As Bell points out, steroids aren’t in the top 150 substances for drug-related hospital admissions (below vitamin C), yet are in the same law enforcement class in the US as crystal meth, courtesy of the proven-fallacious ‘roid rage scare of the late ’80s. This was the same era and climate that produced Tipper Gore’s PRMC, and three Republican-controlled houses were on a criminalising-anything-to-protect-the-children frenzy. So as a result, a whole bunch of little dudes (seriously, it’s an issue in the doco) who wanted big guns became default crims.
There’s plenty of great comedy amongst the serious issues. Gold’s Gym and Westside Barbell, the epicentres of ’80s and ’00s musculature respectively, are pretty much bottomless pits of weird laughs, especially Louie Simmons, the king of powerlifting (like weightlifting but with no drug testing!) and a lifelong steroid user, and congressman Henry Waxman is the ultimate political stooge, all moustaches and ‘who, me?’ smiles.
Maybe the best part of the movie, though, is the way it shines a light on America’s cultural complicity in the plight of the Bell family and the wider gym rat community’s obsession with size. A professor stacks up the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s versions of the GI Joe action figure, and you watch its physique evolve from lean and purposeful to The Ultimate Warrior. It’s a pretty irresistible argument that an unnaturally muscled form became the definitive masculine American archetype, and Bell makes it with aplomb.
And then he hits cheating, nailing it even better. Interspersed with shots of the Bushes Jr and Sr railing against the treasonous athletes, and Maria Shriver interviewing the cancerous and nearly dead defensive linesman Lyle Alzado, he points out the dichotomy between America’s win-at-all-costs philosophy and the sanctimonious approach to drugs.
There are some fantastic quotes along the way, when his subjects talk about about performance enhancing drugs in combat: “In sports, you should play fair. In war, you shouldn’t play fair at all” and adult entertainment: “we’re in the porn business. There’s not a lot of morals to begin with.” All that sorta pales into insignificance when you see actual living cows (gene doping looks like the final frontier on this set) which look like this:
“The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans,” says one of Bell’s incredible subjects, and he’s right. Think about the fact the draw has no history in any of the big four American sports, and the way the relentless focus on the American Dream has meant the curdling nightmares of those left outside of welfare and healthcare can be set aside. There are revealing interviews with Ben Johnson, who (correctly) posits that since everyone was cheating, why should he be ashamed, and Carl Lewis, who circles and obfuscates and ends up looking a damn fool.
In the end, the great thing about Bigger, Faster, Stronger* (the asterisk is for every record breaker or hall of famer who’s tested positive) is that it draws no conclusions. It barely even suggests you draw your own. It’s as much entertainment as it is journalism. Bell just wants you to think about some subjects which maybe don’t get a lot of real, serious air in sports. Idols and heroism, villains and failure, sportsmanship and politics. It ends just asking you to think, and the true poignancy has only come beyond the end of the film.
Late last year Mike ‘Mad Dog’ Bell, the younger brother of the director and probably the subject on camera the most in Bigger, Faster, Stronger*, died in a Cosa Mesa rehab centre (SEE CORRECTION IN THE COMMENTS BELOW). He left behind kids and a wife and an indelible imprint on anyone who sees the film. It doesn’t change anything, but something about his quest makes this documentary all the more keenly felt. You should watch it.