The five-year struggle to revive the fortunes of the San Francisco-based American Roller Derby Assn. provides the backdrop for big-hearted docu “Jam.” Engaging portrait of eccentrics doggedly pursuing their distinctive brand of the American dream copped the non-fiction award the at South by Southwest fest, and has modest arthouse potential — not to mention dramedic remake possibilities.
Diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1983, Tim Patten stays healthy and focused by pouring his energy and substantial savings into the aforementioned org, of which he’s president. He’s an unabashed lifelong fan, fondly remembering the sport as “the only thing my mom and dad would watch together.”
Tim’s general manager is Dan Ferrari, who cherishes roller derby at least as much as he does Barbra Streisand, and claims, “I’d much rather see a game than go on a cruise for a week.”
In a real-life story that comes to resemble 1970s guilty pleasure “Kansas City Bomber,” minus star Raquel Welch, Patten enlists a veteran cadre of over-the-hill eccentrics to kick each other around the rink for a frenzied but ever-diminishing number of fans, even as he pursues then-nascent internet opportunities for the league.
Most charismatic among players is Alfonso Reyes, a tough-as-nails 32-year vet who’s lived with the same partner for 18 years and wistfully remembers turning $100 tricks in downtown San Fran.
Ferrari sets up a competing league after some shady dealings with scrupulously honest Patten, who subsequently sits out the 2000 season after losing his partner to AIDS. Final update sequence, a la “American Graffiti,” helps explain not only the lifers’ dedication to the sport, but their conspicuous love of pizza as well.
That a majority of the people profiled in “Jam,” which is slang for a roller derby game, are gay, goes without comment by debuting feature helmer Mark Woollen, a musicvid director. Juxtaposition of rough-and-tumble sport and sexual orientation is an inspired found hook, treated with what might be described as an appealing sense of jaunty reverence.
Tech package is smart, with superb team editing of wheeled slugfests and flashy split-screen graphics that don’t intrude on the action. Vintage 1970s tunes cement the pervasive air of proletarian nostalgia.