You’ve heard of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”? Well, “The Greasy Hands Preachers” is pitched at pretty much the same choir, but instead of seeing the joys of hands-on motorcycle work as a chance to delve into deeper philosophical topics, this collection of superficial platitudes from dudes whose lives were made better by building custom cycles serves mostly to validate its subjects’ two-wheeling lifestyle. It’s just the sort of niche-interest affirmational docu Christopher Guest has made a career of parodying, though this one plays it straight, relying on Orlando Bloom’s exec-producer credit to push-start its limited prospects.
Financed through a combination of crowdfunding and corporate sponsorships (from Belstaff, BMW Motorrad and Motul), the warm-and-fuzzy pic is perfectly representative of a new breed of documentaries flooding the world these days, now that enterprising filmmakers have found a way to leverage the enthusiasm of specific interest groups (e.g. band fans, art junkies, micro-cause crusaders) to sponsor pics that have no other reason to exist. The resulting films, often made without the creative pushback of distribution-minded investors, tend to be indulgent homages to the subjects they cover, fulfilling their makers’ fantasies of rubbing elbows with their idols.
In this case, director Clement Beauvais and producer Arthur de Kersauson had collaborated on motocycle-themed short “Long Live the Kings” and decided to delve further into the world of specialty bikes — specifically, those designed and built by mechanics, racing pros and others dedicated to the idea that the true pleasure of two-wheel culture lies in doing everything by hand. Since reality TV has already done the sector proud via such skeins as “American Chopper” and “Pimp My Ride,” which emphasize both the back-shop drama and the thrill of seeing a vehicle transformed before one’s eyes, the filmmakers opted to steer their project in a more esoteric direction.
Basically, they set out to capture what makes these gearheads tick, interviewing a dozen or so motorcycle jockeys around the world, whether restoring a rare Honda Red Dragon bike in a Venice Beach garage, or surfing and cycling along the beaches of Indonesia. Lazily organized into five chapters, the movie begins and ends at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, a desert course where many of these guys get together to test out their latest creations, but it mostly consists of talking heads — so much telling, so little showing — as they spout such non-insights as “I almost look at my bikes like they’re part of the family” or “The only reason I do it is because it’s really good fun.”
So there you have it: These guys have engineered their lives around their hobby, in some cases walking out on graduate degrees and high-paying white-collar jobs to build bikes, and the only perspective the film can offer is that they’re happier for it? Tell us something we don’t know. Shooting on Super 16 to convey the gritty vintage feel of the subject itself (which concerns the dwindling number of men who still know how to repair a bike themselves), Beauvais and de Kersauson set out to make a film, but they’ve come away with a stocking stuffer.
“That’s one to show the grandkids,” beamed one of the film’s subjects immediately after its San Sebastian festival premiere, and he’s right: The movie seems to have been made for the guys who appear onscreen and their immediate families. But it treats everything with deadly seriousness, never cracking a smile or delving deep enough to include anything that might complicate or otherwise lend dramatic interest to the portrayal — and without dimension, it’s no better than a latenight infomercial, appealing to those who’ve already bought into the lifestyle on offer.