presents a feature-length documentary on DVD by MARTIN SCHLIESSMANN and JOHN BRUNE
Filling in the Backstory
DVD Review of "Why Sturgis?"2006 review by Terry Roorda, Editor-in-Chief
Thunder Press: Harley-Davidson and American Motorcycle News
There's something disorienting about watching footage of bikers cruising down Main Street in Sturgis set against a backtrack of classical music instead of the crunchy guitar riffs we're so accustomed to hearing whenever Harleys hit the screen. But that's what we have in "Why Sturgis?," an offbeat documentary that endeavors to draw a connection between the town's frontier roots and its modern-day status as a biker Mecca. Instead of Steppenwolf we have Strauss; instead of Vaughan we have Wagner; instead of Rossington Collins we have Rossini. How weird. How refreshing.
That's not the only departure the film makes from what you'd expect in any account concerning bikers and Sturgis, and while it's debatable that filmmakers Martin Schliessmann and John Brune succeed in answering the question posed in the title with anything we don't already know, the work nonetheless does manage to do an educational and entertaining job of corralling a lot of wide-ranging subject matter into a fairly cohesive examination of the history and current state of South Dakota's biggest tourist attraction.
To tell the story, the filmmakers focus on three main themes, cycling through them in segments throughout the film. The first is the history of the Sturgis rally, told principally through interview sequences with Pearl Hoel, the lovely and lively First Lady of the Sturgis Rally who passed away in 2005 at the age of 99. She was, of course, the wife of local Indian Motorcycle dealer, Jackpine Gypsy and Rally originator J.C. "Pappy" Hoel, and attended every rally from its 1938 inception until her death. Her on-camera anecdotes of the early days are captivating. The interview was filmed in 2001 and is a marvelous piece of living history. It is these sequences that serve more than anything else to tie the various disparate elements of the film together.
The portrayal of the rally as it exists today is the second major theme threaded through the film, and it centers on more interview segments, this time with one Mac Trench, a rallygoer from Indiana who describes his trip to Sturgis by way of Texas and California, telling the tale while standing on Main Street on a noisy rally night. Mac proves engaging enough, but in presenting him as a typical attendee of the rally, the case sort of falls apart later in the going when he takes off for a cruise down Main Street... on his Yamaha. This is the video's weakest link, and it comes as no real surprise to see the Trench name again, this time in the credits, where one Genevieve Trench is listed as one of the musicians playing on some of the film's background music, along with members of the Brune family. And, oh yeah, both Schliessmann and Brune, like Mac Trench, are from Indiana. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the likelier explanation is that he's a friend of the filmmakers, which is fine, but it hardly qualifies him as the quintessential Sturgis biker.
So there are those two themes coming and going during the production, but it's the film's third main theme, the life and times of Samuel Davis Sturgis, which dominates the entire project. This part of the film borrows heavily and unblushingly from the style of noted documentarist Ken Burns — you know, sepia-tinged archival photos onscreen as old letters are read in dramatic voiceovers while someone scrapes away at a fiddle in the background — and if you tuned in late to "Why Sturgis?" you would swear you were watching an installment of Burns' PBS Civil War series.
And there's nothing wrong with that. That's how history gets done these days, and it works well here. The story of General Sturgis is a real ripper, too. The film explores the man's long and colorful military career with special emphasis on his tenure with the famed Seventh Cavalry where he was Custer's commanding officer at the time of the massacre at Little Bighorn (where his eldest son, Samuel Jr., was killed) and his involvement in the establishment of Fort Meade, the fabled frontier outpost and raison d'etre for the town of Sturgis. Here we learn that the origin of the town was as an off-post encampment of gamblers and prostitutes who came down from Deadwood to prey upon the troopers — or, in the parlance of the times, to "scoop their pockets." The encampment was thus known as "Scooptown," a name that explains why the modern Sturgis High School team name is the "Scoopers," though their mascot is a prospector with a shovel rather than a hooker.
That's the gist of it, but to flesh the whole project out, there are also interesting and informative interviews with Sturgis Mayor Mark Ziegler, Fort Meade historian Charles Rambow, sculptor Edward Hvalka, inveterate Jackpine Gypsy Neil Hultman, and Wall Drug proprietor Ted Hustead. There are also a number of scenic interludes showcasing the splendor of South Dakota that look like they were shot for the Board of Tourism, as well as some footage of off-season Sturgis when the town is indistinguishable from any other jerkwater burg in rural America.
"Why Sturgis?" was four years in the making and runs nearly an hour and a half, and by the time it's over you have a much better understanding of the history and culture of Sturgis and its surroundings. You don't necessarily have a conclusive answer as to why, of all places, Sturgis ended up being the premier biker rally destination in the world, but you have a lot more to go on in figuring it out for yourself, and I would recommend a viewing of the DVD to anyone heading out to the Sturgis Rally who wants to add some real historical depth to the experience.
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