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'Hardbody' Broadway Bound: Documentary as Musical Theater

By Ayn Carrillo-Gailey

From S.R. Bindler's Hands on a Hardbody. Courtesy of S.R. Bindler

by Ayn Carrillo-Gailey and S.W. Gailey

In 1992, S.R. Bindler was in Longview, Texas, and stumbled upon a real-life scene that would launch his career as a film and commercial director. "I was home on break from NYU, hanging out at a bar," he recalls. "At 3:00 a.m., the place closed up and I stepped out into the night. Across the street, I saw a car lot lit up. I was drawn to it like a moth." 

When Bindler approached the lot, he was met with a tableau vivant made up of five nearly motionless strangers standing around a Nissan pickup truck with their hands pressed to the metal. He was so mesmerized that he watched them for a full 30 minutes before he asked someone what they were doing. "They're trying to win a truck," he was told. In fact, there was much more to it than that. Bindler was witnessing a grueling annual competition of endurance that required entrants to keep at least one hand planted on a new "Hardbody" pick-up truck for as long as possible (with only brief meal and bathroom breaks, no leaning or squatting). Competitions have reportedly lasted up to 102 hours, with the last person standing literally driving away with a slice of the American Dream.

Bindler returned to school, but remained obsessed by what he had witnessed in Longview. He first envisioned writing and directing a feature film about the event. He made a couple attempts at writing a script but couldn't crack it without more detail or insight, so he tabled the project. He was also questioning committing to a career in film. It wasn't until he finished film school and sat in on a friend's film classes at University of Texas that he had a breakthrough.

The class was taught by film history professor Charles Ramírez Berg, known for inspiring such filmmakers as Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. Berg was teaching a class on Soviet montage and one of Bindler's film heroes, Lev Kuleshov, who pioneered the distinctive editing style in the 1910s and 1920s that would influence such figures as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Kuleshov taught that the editing room was where a film was really made. Bindler says this experience affirmed his commitment to filmmaking; he left for Los Angeles to explore his options.

There he met Kevin Morris, who was just starting his own law firm. "Kevin became as obsessed as I was with the contest's film potential and we decided to shoot the next contest in a down-and-dirty manner," Bindler explains. "If we caught magic, great; if not, I'd have enough material to write a script. We caught magic."

Morris was instrumental in raising most of the film's budget, and today he runs Morris Yorn Barnes & Levine, one of the most powerful entertainment law firms in the business. Co-producer Chapin Wilson (Wristcutters: A Love Story) ran camera with Bindler and Michael A. Nickles (Just Peck, Playback). The movie was shot on a shoestring budget on the first prosumer Canon cameras, using Hi8 analogue tape. Hands on a Hardbody went on to earn critical acclaim, become a cult classic and win the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 1997 Los Angeles Film Festival and Best Documentary honors from the Boston Society of Film Critics.

Over the years, interest in adapting Hands on a Hardbody for other media came from many different artists. Prior to his death in 2006, director Robert Altman was developing a feature film based on the documentary; he was aiming to create something akin to Sydney Pollack's 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which was based on a marathon dance competition. 

Approached by multiple stage musical producers over the years about adapting the documentary, Bindler and Morris turned them all down. But when Pulitzer-winning writer Doug Wright (Quills, I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens) and lyricist Amanda Green (High Fidelity, Bring It On: The Musical) pitched the team, their pedigree, sheer tenacity and perseverance convinced the filmmakers that these were the right people for the job.

Wright recalls his first experience with Bindler's doc: "When I first saw Hands on a Hardbody, I rented it from an old-fashioned, honest-to-god video store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I hail from Texas, so I have an interest in my home state that is both nostalgic and anthropological. On this particular night, I was also a bit homesick. I went home and watched it, and it left me stunned. It's quite an ingenious film; it transcends its campy, Americana subject [the competition itself] to become a universal meditation on competition and desire." According to Green, she and Wright first talked about the idea of adapting Bindler's documentary for the stage in 2005. In 2007 they decided to pursue it.

Bindler and Morris took the creative risk to allow Wright and Green to create the musical, and trusted them to do so. They gave notes throughout the workshop process, but left it in the dramatists' hands to create and shape the musical that it would become.  Whereas some doubted Hands on a Hardbody's musical potential, as Wright puts it, "Good musicals have to come from source material that will welcome the addition of songs. In Hands on a Hardbody, everyone in the competition has a reason to sing about their hopes to win a life-changing truck. The region where the film is set—East Texas, near the Louisiana border—also boasts a distinct, infectious sound. The local idiom is also pretty delicious. Together, that gave lyricist composer Amanda Green and composer Trey Anastasio (the frontman of the band Phish) the chance to create some pretty colorful tunes."

When asked what the challenges were in transforming the piece into a musical, Wright answers frankly, "Obviously, the story could become dangerously static; in the film, people stand around a truck without moving for long stretches of time! But we've embraced that aspect of the tale, and, I hope, made it a strength instead of a liability. We're true to the rules of the contest, but the stage is rarely still."  

Hands on a Hardbody had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in April 2012. The show garnered rave reviews and standing ovations. For Bindler, the experience of watching the film "transformed and performed on stage was unforgettable—a joyous experience." Morris was "amazed at how well the musical stayed true to the integrity of the documentary, and how effectively the different medium portrayed the social commentary from the original film." 

In an unusually rapid development, the Playhouse announced that Hands on a Hardbody—while still in the middle of its world-premiere run—would be produced on Broadway. The Broadway cast is to feature Keith Carradine, Hunter Foster, Mary Gordon Murray and Connie Ray—all of whom were in the La Jolla staging.

Coinciding with the March 2013 Broadway debut, the filmmakers will release a DVD with newly re-mastered footage, a commentary track from the filmmakers, as well as additional contestant interviews that have never been seen before. 

As Benny Perkins, the 1992 "Hands on a Hardbody" winner, claimed, "If you really want something, you've got to keep your hands on it." Twenty years after Bindler witnessed his first Hands on a Hardbody contest, Bindler, Morris and their team are a testament to that. 

For more on Hands on a Hardbody, the movie, click here.

Ayn Carrillo-Gailey has written for Elle and Latina and is the author of the nonfiction book Pornology. S.W. Gailey's first novel will be published by Penguin/Blue Rider Press in 2014.