Filmmaker Dana Brown’s no racer, but his giddiness for the Baja 1000 is more than apparent in his documentary Dust to Glory.
Maybe he’s too giddy. By design, this gritty off-road marathon of cars, trucks and bikes is rife with challenge, a 1,000-mile trek along the rugged terrain of the sandy Mexican coast. It’s a spectacle of brawn and bravado spread out over a cinematographer’s dream landscape of sprawling, untouched beaches and swaths of sand speckled with cactus and spectators.
Brown’s own ego, however, and his overexcitement for his subject matter, prove to be obstacles in his attempt to capture the race’s sun-soaked, maverick appeal.
Right off the bat, the director (son of famed surfer documentarian Bruce Brown) interjects himself into the movie with a “you should know me” attitude. Young Brown followed in Daddy’s footsteps with his 2003 surfer documentary Step Into Liquid, but he’s hardly achieved — or earned — star status. Nevertheless, there’s Brown, shaking hands with bigwigs at the race and narrating the entire event with an overabundance of clichéd commentary and gooey pontification on the greater meaning of it all.
Brown also drowns his movie in an extensive catalog of interviews with racers, crew members, their families and fans. A couple of stories stand out —NASCAR megastar Robby Gordon pulling out at Mile 642 and renegade Mike “Mouse” McCoy taking on the Baja alone by motorcycle — but the rest are lost in a confusing onslaught of faces, names and details.
After all the excessive wind-up and introductions, cinematographer Kevin Ward and his crew take the wheel from Brown in the heart of the race and steal the show. Their cameras, mounted high and low from helmets to helicopters, capture the gritty, unbridled storm through the desert. Lenses get lost in clouds of dusty sand as motorbikes, trucks and buggies slide through shifting passages of silt. There are the expected blowouts and crashes, but there are also dreamy shots taken from above, soaring over the landscape as vehicles glide over beaches or bound over choppy hills.
Dust to Glory would have been better served if Brown had let the pictures and the drivers speak more for themselves. Instead, he cluttered the real drama with inane canvassing of drivers and crew members with questions like, “If you could sum up the Baja 1000 in one word, what would it be?” The answers are boring and predictable: “love” and “adventure.” Brown should have shown more cat-and-mouse chases at 100 miles per hour, more hairpin turns with sand spraying at the crazy spectators lining the unpaved and unbarricaded race path, and just more of what makes the race so dangerous and so beloved.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111)
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].