Norwood Arena… The Movie, Directed by Jerry Kelleher
Norwood Arena… The Movie relives an era in American car racing that seems to have been forgotten even by enthusiasts of the sport today, one in which the Norwood Arena in eastern Massachusetts ‘featured prominently in the foundation and growth of today’s multi-billion-dollar auto racing industry’. The arena no longer exists, demolished after nearly 25 years of car racing thrills between 1948 and 1972, and the history of its formation, the legends that began there, the hope and excitement that this track symbolised for so many — these are the themes of this feature-length documentary film.
The film is clearly backed by a considerable amount of archival work by its writers, Jerry Kelleher and Brendan King. It features film from the era to recreate the world and the energy within which the Norwood Arena took form and influenced the world of NASCAR. From imagery of the track with cars speeding around it to the same track filled with eager drivers participating in the industrial destruction inherent to the demolition derby, to period scenes of families and young people enjoying the show from the safety of the audience, the film features a variety of perspectives to capture not just the facts of the rise, fall, and continuing effects of the speedway, but also the aura that it created while it hosted race cars from around the country. ‘The mission of this film’, according to the narrator (voiced by Gil Santos), ‘is to capture a bygone era in American sports history and to bring to life the untold story of the rise and fall of a local short track nicknamed “the little Daytona” ’.
The presentation of this story features many consecutive interviews with racers and fans, including big NASCAR names like Bugs Stevens and Pete Hamilton, both champion racers from Massachusetts. The interviews dominate the film, and they contribute memories from the era in the film’s recreation of the Norwood Arena years. Many of the subjects elucidate important emotional elements of the world of auto racing for the non-racing viewer: its tight communities, its thrills, its addictions. One gets a sense of the emotional intensity at the core of this sport.
The organisation of this information, however, would leave behind all but the most familiar of NASCAR fans. It seems that in securing impressive interviews with famous racers whose stories touch upon the history of the Norwood Arena, the filmmakers have allowed their testimonies to run free, to lead the documentary by collective memory rather than history. It constitutes a reversal of priorities: the documentary serves as a conduit for the consolidation of memory, however disparate, and the documentary suffers for it. The interviews, presented back-to-back in such a way, do not serve a greater purpose to contribute to a documentation of an era or the telling of a story — the interviews are an essential element of what could be an important history, but they are only an element. Instead of a completed film with a defined trajectory and an intelligible story, Norwood Arena presents interview after interview without proper context, in which NASCAR greats like Pete Hamilton and Bugs Stevens are allowed to reminisce without end on topics only tangentially related to the film’s stated subject. These are important interviews, and they preserve a collective memory which might otherwise be lost, but they do not constitute a film on their own. They belong in a film archive whose bits and pieces may someday contribute to a story; they do not belong in a documentary film endlessly spliced together. Just because Pete Hamilton says it doesn’t mean it belongs in a film (an error of judgment by the filmmakers, not Pete Hamilton of course). The film slogs along, accompanied by generic music which, despite trying to infuse the interviews with a sense of energy and excitement, by its juxtaposition only accentuates the long journey. The result is unfocussed, boring, and much too long.
The encompassing nature of the film, whose filmmakers undoubtedly cut much (but not enough) from the numerous interviews that were conducted, will probably please an audience of NASCAR fans already familiar with Pete Hamilton and Bugs Stevens. The interviews present new information even in the world of auto racing, which the film claims has forgotten its roots at Norwood. The film also provides cultural context for those who are less familiar with the sport, and the documentation is grounded in careful research and presented well: pictures are consistently labeled according to the people in them, and documents are presented appropriately in their context. It is an amateur film, though: more an unfocussed compilation of community memory than a proper documentary. ■
Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes
Genre: Sports, Documentary
Country: United States
Find out more
Find out more about this film and its director on the pages for Norwood Arena… The Movie and Jerry Kelleher in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the film’s page on Facebook, and the film’s website. Jerry Kelleher is an independent filmmaker based in Norwood, Massachusetts. His work has been featured in, among other publications, The Boston Globe.
A trailer for Norwood Arena… The Movie can be viewed below:
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘Norwood Arena… The Movie’. 10th District Studios.