Review by Byron Bixler
From the October 2015 Issue As someone who generally finds bodybuilding to be kind of repulsive, I’m pleasantly surprised to say that I found Pumping Iron to be an enthralling documentary on the subject. The film brings attention to the many personalities training at Gold’s Gym in California and beyond as they prepare for the 1975 Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe contests. What we get from this is a straightforward look at the nature of the sport, an insider’s view of the workout sessions, and the mentoring and mental conditioning that goes into an exercise that I previously saw as mere exhibitionism – a novelty and nothing more.
Several titans of the bodybuilding game share the screen in the film, but it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger who ultimately gets the spotlight. This is Arnold way before the Hollywood fame, long before his iconic roles in The Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, and even the Conan films. I’ve never seen so much candid footage of the man, and watching him here, it isn’t shocking that he came to be the star we know him as now. His grin lights up the room and in between the intense, vein-pulsing weight work, he displays an effortless natural charm in his exchanges with fellow bodybuilders. He’s repeatedly touted as “the best” and “the one and only”. When other muscle-men speak about competition, “Arnold” is the hottest name on their tongues. Dethroning the champ is their great aspiration and making Schwarzenegger the documentary’s centerpiece was a good move.
It’s important to note that the film is not about Arnold, though. There’s a rich tapestry of similarly hard-working athletes in this film and although I think the exploration of each one could have been more thorough, their time on screen is nothing less than captivating. I use the word “athlete” because after seeing the amount of work these men put into honing their bodies, I can’t think of a more fitting term. What they do and how they appear is perplexing at first, but after spending ten minutes with a few of them in the gym, you really begin to admire the dedication and the results. It’s all very specific, as the men strive for both definition and symmetry. As they mold each muscle with a sculptor’s precision, the sport begins to closely resemble an art form and the film helped me discover a newfound respect for the artists.
The most fascinating element of Pumping Iron, beyond the immediate impressiveness of the bodies on display, is the psychology of the bodybuilders. Their good-natured camaraderie is highly enjoyable to watch. There is a certain friendliness in their interactions, but a definite undercurrent of competitive energy as well. Beneath the pleasantries and kind advice, one can unmistakably hear the faint whisperings of an athlete saying to his opponent “I’m going to crush you.” Some speak of sabotage through big grins and as we see in one case, the talk is more than a joke.
However, beyond the intricacies of interpersonal relationships is the question of motivation when it comes to taking up bodybuilding in the first place. It sounds as though most of these men grew up scrawny and had a mixture of childhood experiences, but they had a proclivity for self-improvement that brought them to the point where we see them in the film. The sport isn’t a frivolous hobby for them. You can discern a sense of seriousness and pride in their faces as they pose before screaming crowds and in their moments of triumph, you can’t help but smile with them.
Although relegated to the status of a background element, the one thing I wanted Pumping Iron to really dive into was the fandom of the sport. With each competition we see, there are hundreds of wide-eyed spectators shrieking and voraciously applauding the men on stage. For half the time, the camera lingers on the muscles, but for the other half, there are varied shots of audience members, some even singled out for their memorable reactions. These moments of breaking from the “stars” led me to believe that an exploration of the fans would be included, serving to round out this look at the sport as a whole; however, what must be understood is that the film acts more as a document of the bodybuilders and the culture they exist in rather than a two-sided critique of body-perception/worship. Nothing is being critiqued in Pumping Iron – there is only observation.
The filmmakers’ approach to this observation comes off as a bit lackadaisical at times. Sequences of lifting and last minute pumps in the gym can become repetitive and there are moments when the film doesn’t seem to have a clear direction or purpose. It comes together in the end and a singular event is indeed built towards over the course of the documentary, but some parts felt too loose to not be cut out.
The film does what the great documentaries do and that is: endear you to a subject that you previously had no connection to. If I can go into a film viewing excessive muscle mass as disgusting and come out of it admiring the intricate structures and the men who built them, the film has done its job. Pumping Iron comes recommended as a raw slice of mid-70’s bodybuilding culture featuring a couple young, familiar faces surrounded by equally intriguing personalities.
4 out of 5 stars