In Praise of Rad, Hal Needham’s BMX Classic

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 28 2013 5:37 PM

In Praise of Rad, Hal Needham’s BMX Classic

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The 1986 film is like abstract, BMX-inspired poetry.

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The director and stuntman Hal Needham died on Friday, at the age of 82. The obituaries and tributes have rightly focused on his genuinely culture-shaping hits, Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, and on his decades of stunt work in film and television.

But if you were a suburban pre-adolescent in the mid-1980s, there’s a chance that the Needham work you know best is not a Southern-fried Burt Reynolds vehicle, but a 1986 cult classic about a BMX race in the boondocks: Rad, starring Bill Allen as Cru Jones.

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The story, as Maude Lebowski might say, is ludicrous. Duke Best (Jack Weston), president of the Federation of American Bicyclists and, in this fictional universe, owner of the real-life Mongoose bicycle company, comes to Cru’s small town of Cochrane to create Helltrack, a grueling BMX course. He brings with him a crew of “top factory riders.” A “race such as Helltrack,” we are told, “has never even been attempted in BMX history.” There’s a qualifying race for amateurs, but it’s on the same day as Cru’s SATs—and his mom (Talia Shire) is adamant that he take the test.

You can guess what happens next. But you might not predict that, in the meantime, Cru will fall for one of those factory riders, Christian Holly (Lori Loughlin, of later Full House fame), and the two of them will do romantic BMX tricks at a high school dance.

The film flopped at the box office, but was supposedly a hit on VHS. As it happens, my parents bought our family’s first VCR not long before Rad came out, and my brothers and I watched Rad roughly a million times. We weren’t the only ones. A couple years ago, the movie’s 25th anniversary spawned a celebration in Cochrane, Rad 25, and a feature-length documentary effort, 25 Years Later: A RADtrospective, that sadly did not reach its fundraising goal on Kickstarter. According to the man behind that effort, Marc Dewey, Rad is “entangled in rights issues” to the point that now, no one seems quite sure who actually owns the film. It has never been given an official release on DVD, despite the best efforts of its devoted fans.

The movie is utterly earnest and still charms with its straight-faced silliness. But Hal Needham knew full well what the movie depended on: great stunts scored to killer tunes. “Those professional bike riders made the film,” he told the fans at Rad 25. “That and the music.” Just watch the opening sequence, several minutes of bike stunts scored to ’80s synth (specifically, “Break the Ice” by Australian pop star John Farnham). It’s like abstract, BMX-inspired poetry.

Rest in peace, Mr. Needham. And thank you for making this beautiful, ridiculous movie.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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