Formula One star Jackie Stewart hangs with Roman Polanski in the 1972 documentary "Weekend of a Champion." Credit: Submarine Deluxe
‘Weekend of a Champion’ Directors: John Simon, Roman Polanski Genre: Documentary Rating: NR 2 (out of 5) Globes
Documentaries in the 1970s weren’t the massive cottage industry they are now, and “Weekend of a Champion” — which never saw much of a release when made in 1972 and has been dusted off for no special reason other than why not? — suggests its makers didn’t quite know their way around the genre. The makers are no less than Roman Polanski and his friend John Simon, the latter who only made a few other, totally obscure movies. The subject is Jackie Stewart, a British (but Scots-accented) Formula One racer who won three World Drivers’ Championships.
Stewart’s razor sharp racing prowess contrasts nicely with his off-the-course persona, which is laidback, charming and talkative. That he’s incredibly articulate is especially impressive because he suffers from extreme dyslexia, to the point where he actually cannot read and has never learned how. “Weekend of a Champion” hangs with him during the lead-up to a Monte Carlo race, and he’s a gregarious, lovely person to spend a movie with. Polanski — who sort of resembles Stewart, especially as both were rocking bushy, straggly ‘dos that were the style of the time — mostly hangs off-screen, but occasionally slips into the frame so that we can enjoy the company of two of the hottest, if not necessarily classically attractive, superstars of the era.
And that’s pretty much it. Stewart drags the cameraman onto a lap he does at a relatively normal speed, to show what the track looks like when he’s not speeding down it. But such stylistic gambits are few and far between. That, for the most part is, fine, considering Stewart’s extreme likability, if not magnetism.
Polanski’s likable, too, and on some level it’s refreshing seeing him in a less driven (if you will) mood. The director made the film in between his gruesome, bleak-o-rama 1971 “Macbeth” — his emotional response to the murder of Sharon Tate — and his libidinous Eurotrash 1972 whatzit “What?,” with “Chinatown” around the corner. There’s no sense of the traumatized Polanski here, except that this is a kind of vacation, and an attempt to tackle a form of the medium that was alien to him, as well as to most directors at the time.
Still, “Weekend of a Champion” is too diffuse and too light, and when it comes time for the big race itself, it founders. For obvious reasons, a camera is not strapped to Stewart’s car, but what was filmed and edited together is a formless mess. To make matters worse, appended on this new release is a 20-minute chat between Polanski and Stewart today which, while not without its merits — Stewart brings up how safe Formula One is today versus how absurdly, insanely, suicidally dangerous it was in his time — still goes on too long. A film that was merely affable becomes a mild irritation.