Emmy-nominated director Judd Ehrlich (“The Mayor of the West Side”) dishes up another character-driven Gotham docu with the story of Fred Lebow, shrewd mastermind of the New York City Marathon, who essentially ran running in the metropolis from late 1960s until his death in 1994. Genially told through interviews, archival footage, and photos, the history of this unlikely fitness maven from Transylvania forms part of a larger tale about the upturn in fortunes of his adopted city. Sure to be popular on home turf, pic should sprint through other fests before finding a second wind on cable and DVD.
A true eccentric, Lebow (born Fischl Leibowitz in 1932) left Romania with his eldest brother at 14, just ahead of the Soviet takeover. Eventually he wound up in Manhattan’s garment industry marketing knockoffs. The European charm, chutzpah and single-mindedness that won him success there later proved essential in promoting his new passion, running.
Fast-cutting between conventionally shot interviews (including members of the New York Road Runners, park commissioners, journalists, Lebow siblings and world-famous athletes) and well-chosen archival footage, pic takes a march-through-history approach to tracing marketing genius Lebow’s involvement with the marathon and its development into the world’s most famous distance race.
The first New York Marathon took place in 1970 in Central Park, underwritten by $300 of Lebow’s own money. Of the 127 runners, only 55 completed the course, but numbers increased every year.
For the bicentennial, Lebow changed the marathon’s course to encompass all five of New York’s boroughs, also recruiting Olympians Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter to compete. The rerouting changed the image of the city at a time when, plagued by crime and financial problems, it needed something to invoke civic pride.
From time to time, Ehrlich interrupts the momentum of the marathon history for less interesting psychologizing about Lebow’s background and numerous contradictions, letting his Road Runners colleagues natter a bit too long about his peculiarities.
Benefiting from considerable research, pic draws on extensive archival footage, which is of variable visual quality. Ehrlich saves the best material for last, closing with an emotional climax that adds layers of meaning to the title.
Journeyman-like tech package adds to pic’s folksy, New York boosterism in a pleasant way. Music choices may not be everyone’s copy of tea, but support the amiable energy of the tale.