I loved this movie. That’s it. Review done. Watch it here.
More seriously, Marc Martinez has created a documentary about bodybuilding’s Golden Age that manages to do what so many Iron Game documentaries struggle with – he captures the wonder of bodybuilding. This is a movie centred on California and bodybuilding from the late 1940s to early 1980s.
In much the same way that the Californian Gold Rush seemed to draw people from all corners of the Earth, Martinez captures the spirit of bodybuilding from the 1960s to 1980s. There are countless personal stories here from a variety of names and individuals. In this review, I will focus on Three Big Themes from the movie. But again, remember my review recommendation is to go and watch it!
The Importance of Place and Space
Three areas take centre stage in this documentary: the Original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, Muscle Beach in Venice and the original Gold’s Gym. The documentary meticulously and lovingly takes us through the history of these areas highlighting not only their evolution but their allure for individuals. In much the same way that Marvel’s Thor was told his homeland Asgard was ‘not a place but a people,’ Martinez captures the communities that were built around these areas.
Though they could be intimidating places to exercise, the documentary’s various talking heads depict a world where individuals embraced and encouraged one another to push themselves on a daily basis. While territorial allegiances existed, bodybuilders were nevertheless part of a broader community. This presents a much different perception of bodybuilding in the 1970s and 1980s which, in many ways, is often understood to be the fictitious ‘dog-eat-dog‘ depictions shown in the original Pumping Iron (more on this in a moment).
It was really fascinating to see how power shifted from one area to another. The focus on Gold’s Gym provides an excellent example of how taste, and popularity, change. There was a point in time when Gold’s Gym was one of several iconic gyms on the West Coast. Vince Gironda had his gym, as did Bill Pearl. Both of which were home to legendary bodybuilders. Take, for example, the first Mr. Olympia Larry Scott – who always said he preferred Vince’s gym to Bill’s or Gold’s.
Power shifted to Gold’s, in part, because of the unique equipment that the owner, Joe Gold, made. More important, however, was the physical structure of the gym. Whereas Gironda’s and Pearl’s gym had their charms, Gold’s Gym was perfect for any kind of media production. It had lots of natural light, high ceilings, and owners who were more than happy to open the gym for publicity opportunities. This is such a minute detail in how Gold’s became popular but it was a fascinating thing to see teased out.
The Pumping Iron Effect
Ending on Gold’s suitability for outside media appearances, the documentary also discusses the ‘Pumping Iron‘ Effect in American bodybuilding. Rather than falling into the trap that other documentaries have of presenting itself as a ‘successor’ to Pumping Iron, Marc’s documentary discusses the early efforts to create the film and its aftermath.
In particular, it was great seeing attention given to Charles Gaines’ earlier book of the same name and also to hear how Gaines, and his eventual Pumping Iron producer David Butler, joined forces. The Pumping Iron book, released in 1974 and was, itself, a cultural success which exceeded expectations. In many ways, it laid the framework from which the documentary, and its subsequent success, was built.
For viewers, there is an understanding that while Pumping Iron is often credited with the explosion of interest in bodybuilding, the book, and other efforts, were equally as important. Attention is also directed towards the transformation the movie had on how muscle men were depicted in media. They went from dumb, and silent, showpieces, to individuals who were accepted and respected to a much greater degree.
The last theme which really shone for me was the importance of individual entrepreneurs and, in this case, the trio of Ken Sprague, Ken Waller and the late Ric Drasin. Drasin is acknowledged here as the man who created the iconic Gold’s Gym logo and Sprague and Waller are rightly held up as the individuals who made the logo iconic.
A key focus in the latter half of this documentary is the creativity that Sprague and Waller exhibited in helping to make the Gold’s Gym brand, a brand. From t-shirts to books, and everything in between, the duo pushed the idea of Gold’s Gym as more than a gym. And boy were they successful. In one amusing but telling insight, they recall making so much money on t-shirts that they simply lost count.
Effectively stuffing the money into bags to be dealt with later. The anecdote reminded me of John Fair’s wonderful biography of Bob Hoffman wherein he noted that the York Barbell owner was so successful that he often kept cheques stuffed into his various pockets uncashed. If someone needed money he would often throw a few cheques at them to figure it out. Such wealth!
The documentary ends with a focus on the 1977 AAU Mr. America show which Sprague hosted in California. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, no expense spared, competition. Prior to the show, a parade went through Santa Monica featuring bodybuilders on Elephants, fancy cars and a variety of amusements. It culminated in a packed stadium to watch that year’s Mr. America. The parade was undoubtedly successful and one of the most audacious promotions the sport has ever seen.
It should be stressed how badly the event could have gone. Think back to Vince McMahon’s ill-fated World Bodybuilding Federation of the 1990s which likewise sought to marry entertainment with bodybuilding. Where Vince’s WBF pushed to far, and failed spectacularly, Sprague succeeded and, as the documentary makes clear, left a lasting impression on others. The parade, and the Mr. America contest, are presented as emblematic of how special this time was. Anything felt like it could happen, because it could.
As a historian of the Iron Game, it was great to see more focus on the entrepreneurs who helped transform the fitness industry. Sprague and Waller’s management of Gold’s Gym during this era should, in my view, be held up to the same reverence given to the Weider Brothers, Bob Hoffman and, more recently Rogue Fitness in that they made a significant, and lasting impact on the fitness industry.
To go back to my introduction – watch this movie. It contains incredibly rare archival footage and gives a voice to innumerable individuals who are often neglected in this history. There is beauty and excitement to this documentary. Marc appreciates, and as we learn, lived this history. The tenderness and respect Marc shows for this era is truly a joy.
As an aside, I’ll give a shoutout here to Shawn Stone from Carved Out of Stone for an excellent video review of the documentary. As always, happy lifting!
Check out the Movie Stream here.
Man, what a beautifully written and insightful review. You truly did Marc’s wonderful film justice.
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