Cycling Movie: The Levi Effect

Tonight saw the public release of the latest cycling documentary: The Levi Effect. I first became aware of this movie late in the cycle as tickets for the one time showing in theaters became available online. The release date also appeared – from the outside – to be oddly coincidental with the USADA release of their report, which included testimony and admissions from Levi Leipheimer himself.  I attempted to put that latter point aside and watch the film with as open a mind as possible.

Several of the names involved in the production of this movie added to the anticipation. The involvement by Bike Monkey was not a surprise, as they are the organizational force behind Levi’s Grand Fondo.

Production company Citizen Pictures seemed a good match for this type of content, as they have done several cycling-specific films, most notable among them being Race Across the Sky. A couple of days before the national premier, a post on the Facebook page for the movie indicated that yes, indeed, Leipheimer would be speaking on film regarding doping and/or his statements to the USADA.

The national release of the film was in the format of these “theater event” type presentations, where the piece is shown one time only, across the country, at the same time in select theaters. The theater presentation opened up not with the movie, but rather a an odd picture-in-picture situation of an image of the inside of a movie theater, being filmed from the back. Announcer Dave Towle is on screen, apparently speaking to a select group for the true premier, which purportedly took place on Sept 28 of this year. Mr. Towle introduces the film to the premier guests – and by extension us – and the film itself begins to roll for those of us watching the Oct 24 premier.

The film begins with a combination of on screen narration by Levi Leipheimer in Butte, MT – his town of birth. It covers much of his childhood as a ski racer, and his early introduction to cycling in his parents ski/bike shop. It then goes on to a somewhat expected overview of his career, combining race footage, more on-camera narration from Levi, and cameos by the likes of Patrick Dempsey, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. At one point Levi makes a comment about a long career and the hard choices of cycling, and the film takes a dramatic pause.

It is here that you can find the first public video admission of his past doping experiences, although he had previously gone on-record in the USADA testimony, as well as Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat. The movie then continues with an emphasis on footage and commentary from the 2011 Tour of California, and finally ends with a long segment on Levi’s Grand Fondo. The end credits roll, and we cut back to the September 28 premier footage, where Dave Towle has now brought several involved individuals up to the front of the theater for a panel discussion. Oddly enough, one of my favorite moments of the entire presentation actually came out of this epilogue panel discussion. Tom Danielson‘s comments during this interview session was my first experience listening to him – and he was hysterically funny. Unfortunately, the fact that this piece, which will presumably show up in the DVD extras when it gets released, was one of my favorite parts of the whole night says something about my opinion of this film.

Unfortunately, I left this movie feeling somewhat unsatisfied. On the one hand, I was watching a cycling documentary on the big screen, in a theater, which has its own appeal. But at the end I was left feeling like the entire production was a tourism video for Levi’s home town of Santa Rosa, CA, an homage to his wife and dogs, and a commercial for his Grand Fondo. It didn’t pan out to much more of a Cliff Notes version of his life, sprinkled with nods to the organization, town and causes important to him. Even the doping admission on video felt like something that may have been added in late in the project, sandwiched in the middle of the timeline of racing accolades.

I was not dissatisfied with the movie, nor was I excited by what I saw. In fact, my first comment as I was leaving the theater says it all: “I don’t know that I really have anything to write about this.” And that, in the end, is my final summation: I do not regret seeing it, I would not, in retrospect, regret having missed it.