There has been an increase in the number of motorcycle documentaries in recent years, mostly made by enthusiasts themselves. Whether the films were any good, appealed to us directly, or be it we left the cinema with a sense that at least biking and the culture was, for once, portrayed with a measure of positivity, is a good thing. Profiles of unhinged racers risking their lives, men circumnavigating the globe to satiate boyhood dreams and countless touring docs has allowed an expanding crater to form in the shape of a film explicitly about the custom bike scene which, until now, has remained largely unexplored. The explosion within the arena, bursting out from the underground following the crash of 2008, has unmasked some of the most talented basement lurking builders, catapulting those relatively unknown men and women to hero status and opening up the floor, according to rapidly swelling consumer demand. Combining the tradition of bike building with the combusting boom of motorcycle culture, in appropriately titled feature film, Oil in The Blood, the filmmakers have created something rather special. It is a film a lot of us has been quietly hoping and patiently waiting for. With everything riding on the launch, the filmmakers have not only the responsibility to present an objective portrait of the custom scene and custom subcultures worldwide, but, equally, a pressure to accurately represent those in the business. On a sharp, crisp early February afternoon, the movers and shakers of the UK's biking community gathered in an east London cinema for the premiere of this long awaited film.
Enter Gareth Maxwell Roberts (above, interviewing Shige form Mooneyes, Japan), filmmaker, biker, builder and all round two-wheeled enthusiast. What exudes from Gareth's every fibre is his affection and love of bikes - still apparent and abundantly clear… Mo mean feat as the film itself has been three years in the making. Like any passion project, navigating the production highs and lows (among other nameless obstacles) to get the film finished, cut, mixed and out into the world has been a struggle and a war of will. Thankfully, Gareth persisted and it is safe to say this tenacity and determination is indicative of his dedication not only to tell these stories but in pitching them correctly.
In fact, with over 300 interviews, the volume of footage meant much was left on the cutting room floor. Although this is mostly due to the constraints of keeping to the film's respectable two-hour running time. The film is an education to the newcomer, a celebration of the custom scene to those consumed by it and delivers the message of the importance of creativity against the often grey, saturated blandness of the stock factory world.
The disruption created by the financial crash detonated the heart the bike industry with such force it was felt in every city from Adelaide, Australia to Albany, USA. Bikes weren’t selling. The wake up call took the industry back to its roots, forging a market reset and bringing about a return to the soul of motorcycling, galvanising builders around the world to rise up and open their workshop doors. Whether public opinion is that due to this explosion there is an element of selling out or not, the argument for understanding more about the thing that you are riding has kept the custom machine moving. Engineers are motivated by a fascination to create something that no one has before, with an appetite to continue striving for perfection by challenging every aspect of the craft, looking at the why and questioning the reasoning. When starting from scratch, the book is thrown out and the focus shifts to individuality.
The film is packed with snapshots of biking culture, capturing the variety in approaches and styles - a global cross section of builders’ constant battles with materials, budgets, ego and the quest for perfection. There are strokes of refined genius from Debolex Engineering and unparalleled sophistication from Auto Fabrica. From the fastidious craftsmanship of the relatively underground Japanese ventures to the grassroots of the Midwest chopper scene, no faction is neglected.
Across the spectrum of this expanding arena, shows, events and festivals have emerged, through tradition and grassroots but also to the extraordinary and exclusive. From shows like the Brooklyn International, The One Motorcycle Show (a hobby that got out of hand- founder Thor Drake, shown above) through to the Bike Shed in London blossomed a desire to provide substance to bike enthusiasts, previously absent. In the case of the Bike Shed, Vikki and Dutch’s light bulb moment was in a pub (themselves on their way to a motorcycle show) and theirs is a celebration of the culture of motorcycles in a format the opposite of a trade expo. The thing all these shows has in common is that it has forced people to participate in each other’s worlds, providing a platform for the builders themselves but a chance for choppers to sit side by side with custom builds.
Events such as the Malle Mile sprung up and grew out of a lure of motorcycles and of being inclusive. Festivals celebrating the ethos of biking for most and offer a place for friends and colleagues to come together after months of hard work. As David Borras from El Solitario reflects on the success of Wheels and Waves, “it’s bigger than us.’ From fairs to another flourishing annex of the custom scene, flat track racing has witnessed a burgeoning popularity in the UK and unquestionably, forged a resurgence for custom building specific to the genre in the US. The inimitable Hubert Bastié’s take is that you have to build it to ride it. For many racers, it’s about the blend and building what you race. ‘That you can build a bike for under €5,000 is incredible’… and unthinkable in any other discipline. As Bastié notes, ‘it’s about family.’
The natural humour provided via the eccentricity of personalities ensures the film’s pretention bypass. For me, the riotous postulations of Andy Porter on The Trip Out stole the show! Women are proportionately represented here. The discussion of women’s place within the industry and the potential for positive transformation is a harmonious and important element to the film (significantly, the film’s production team is led by its formidable female producer, Lucy Selwood, above). Stylistic elements combining sweeping aerial shots of riders tackling winding Nice roads, married with breathtaking drone captures of ice racing in the US. The picture has a wildness to it, breathing space between the interviews to permeate the vox pop opinions, all adding to the film’s cinematic appeal. The composition of a stunning musical score sound tracking footage of the El Solitario Desert Harley Davidson riders (below) romping through the Saharan landscape, quite beautifully elevates the closing scenes.
An earnest and sincere chapter calmly touches on the dawning of a new era and the future of biking. Roberts asks interesting questions of the custom scene: will electric bikes make or break the landscape and what does this mean for the bike industry as a whole? Perhaps laying the groundwork for its own affirming intentions, when electric bikes are the most common interpretation, adopted over oil and noise and traditional workshops sit mostly empty and unused, the film might provide a nostalgic biography of a particular moment in biking history.
Socially, we ourselves ask the questions time and time again throughout history. Where would we be without the innovators? The reactors? The envelope pushers? The forerunners of change? Those mutating the model and paving the way to produce work that ultimately does filter down through the ranks and into the Kool-Aid. The effect of just a couple of thousand people building bikes in the world is far reaching, not so much a ripple but as a bigger picture, it’s tidal. The mainstream manufacturers have undoubtedly been influenced. But there will always be an appetite for ‘the one’… the individual. An idea that isn’t going to die away because of a popularity surge, corporate lambasting and bandwagon jumping. Custom culture will evolve and become something else. For all of us, that’s an exciting prospect.
The filmmakers have cleverly maintained a personal tone within the narrative. The contributions are personal stories, but thankfully, Roberts doesn't make the mistake of trading optimism for honesty. This is its great strength, because if it shows us anything as viewers but also as consumers, participants and enthusiasts it’s this: that despite our differences in culture and lifestyle the world over - be it professional or wannabe builders and whether the output is a personal sprawling ten-year project, or high-budget spec build for a customer - at the heart of every build are identical echoes of intention for the end result. Satisfaction and an endeavour for authenticity are the driving factors. Evident are the forthright, uncompromising attitudes and those who clearly feel misrepresented (perhaps plagiarised?) by the mainstream but show an esoteric genre draped in appealing mystery that the moneymen haven’t collared, exploited and capitalised on? It is the nature of humans, commerce and it is in escapable.
Whether you agree with any or all of the angles presented in the film, what we now have to share and enjoy is a broad subject covered, a derivation of the culture, a catalogue of viewpoints and a sculpted, relevant package illustrating what people can achieve. It is by no means perfect, but like bike building itself, by asking questions and provoking conversations, Roberts’ proposal is a solid place to start. The sort of comprehensive documentary that enthusiasts will revisit years from now and refer to as a marker for why the culture mattered. The global biking community needed this film and now there is a preserved slice of documented history, framing a perspective on the industry. Does it matter that it took three years for the film to get made? Apart from fewer worry lines and thicker hairlines visible in a handful of interviews, the sentiment of the statements stands up. As Hugh Mackie of NYC based Sixth Street Specials surmises, ‘Nobody is judging. We are lucky to be around while it’s happening. The motorcycle industry is changing and it’s for the better.’
The argument for creating has never been stronger. Oil in The Blood is a stunning piece of film - beautifully shot and stirringly scored. It is a love letter to bike builders of the past and solicitation for anyone harbouring an inclination to forge a build of their own with garage space and time, to push doubts aside and get on with it. No matter how ambitious. Oil in The Blood is a film that connects us all and makes you wish someone would come along with a large bag of cash and spin it into a series...