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Stand Tall Lou Ferrigno Movie Review

STAND TALL A film review by Steve Rhodes
Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

RATING (0 TO ****): ***

As I have told my readers before, the best documentaries take you to worlds you would never go to on your own. STAND TALL is a fascinating feature length documentary about the sport of bodybuilding. If you're thinking, that it's already been done and that the film was 1977's PUMPING IRON starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, you'd be right. This film, which I saw at San Jose's Cinequest film festival, takes a different approach.

STAND TALL is about the world of a retired bodybuilder, Lou Ferrigno, who is now in his 40s. He has decided to make one come back to compete in a special Masters Mr. Olympia for the over-40 set. This is the first time such a competition has ever been held. Even if the thought of seeing a bunch of greased up men flexing their biceps is not your idea of a good spectator sport, you will be hard pressed not to like this captivating film. It is much more than a sports film.

Does the name Lou Ferrigno ring a bell? Well, besides being one of Arnold's competitors in PUMPING IRON, he is an actor whose most famous role was as The Incredible Hulk in the TV series of the same name. He has also played movie roles from Hercules to Sinbad.

The documentary about Lou was a dedicated labor of love by director and producer Mark Nalley and by co-producer David Booth. They spent a year and a half making it on a shoestring budget of just $200,000. Booth was tenacious. He told me that Nalley was willing to give up on having Schwarzenegger in it if need be, but Booth knew how important it was to have a big name in the film. He kept calling Arnold until he finally got through his entourage. Once he actually spoke with Arnold himself, Arnold was gracious and excited about appearing even though his salary consisted of nothing more than a box of his favorite, albeit expensive, cigars.

Lou Ferrigno is a legend in many ways. At 6' 5" and 310 pounds, he was the largest man ever to make the upper ranks of bodybuilders. For the masters competition, he got down to 295 pounds and just one percent of body fat. As one of his admirers says, "He's got it all -- good back, good shoulders, and he knows how to pose."

This is a documentary that was well planned in advance and carefully edited. The result is a story with a strong narrative drive and an enlightening script. The editor mixes in film clips of Lou's childhood in the late 1950s. You can see this scrawny kid with a hearing aid who seems the least likely person in the world to become a world class bodybuilder. Booth said after the movie was over that the bodybuilders in the picture grew up in an age when none of them ever used steroids, so Lou's feat is all the more impressive.

Lou talks about his childhood and how he was ridiculed as a "deaf mute." He has an 85 percent hearing loss, but he is able now to hear and speak. When he was young, he shined shoes to make money, and he would use the money to buy bodybuilding magazines. He told his customers that one day he would be a world champion bodybuilder. He said they would look down from their newspapers to the little kid working on their shoes and say something to the effect of "sure kid."

I have to admit the scenes of the rippling flesh all shiny from the bodybuilder's oil, did make me want to laugh sometimes. And yet, who among us, especially we males, has not looked in the mirror and tried flexing his muscles. Who are we trying to impress? Ourselves. Bodybuilding is rather like that. Certainly there is the adoration of the fans, but it is a solitary sport requiring enormous dedication to one's own body.

As I sat in the audience, I began reflecting on competitive body sizes. Bodybuilders force themselves to exercise so that their arms are about the same size as the waists of models who starve themselves to get their waists that small. There is a certain symmetry to the two endeavors if you think about it.

The men in the picture, who are just slightly younger than I, have to be admired for their dedication. I am proud of having written 253 movie reviews last year, but my hard work pales in significance to the dedication of these men.

Good documentaries are full of little tidbits that you would never guess. You might not be surprised to learn that bodybuilders push their bodies so hard that they injure themselves frequently. What you might not guess is that these guys are hard to x-ray. The x-ray technicians have to boost the settings an indeterminate amount since these guys are so thick -- not with easy to see through fat, but with relatively opaque muscles. Lou's doctor says it takes over triple the normal power to x-ray Lou.

So what was wrong with the documentary? Not much. Its only failing is that of many low budget documentaries, whose makers do not fully appreciate the importance of lighting. Some of the scenes are just too dark. Faster film or more lighting equipment would have helped enormously.

Booth said he has several deals in progress now with distributors. What is not clear is if the film will end up being shown to mass markets or tailored more to sports fans. I told him I thought the film would appeal to a wide audience so I hoped he found a distributor who would distribute it thus.

Let me end on my favorite piece of trivia from the film. What is it that bodybuilders fear most in competition? That they might sweat and streak their oil.

STAND TALL runs a well paced 1:24. It is not rated, but would get a G rating. There is nothing to offend anyone of any age. The show would be fine for any kid interested in it. I am sure Lou would have loved to have seen a film like this when he was young. I recommend this fascinating movie to you and give it ***.

**** = A must see film.
*** = Excellent show. Look for it.
** = Average movie. Kind of enjoyable.
* = Poor show. Don't waste your money.
0 = Totally and painfully unbearable picture.

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