In this era of peak content, it seems impossible there’s a film that’s impossible to find. But these things do happen: Look at Rad, the 1986 BMX movie that, despite having a large and loyal cult following, was never released on DVD or Blu-ray—until this week. Making Rad’s previous unavailability even more puzzling is the fact that it’s no shot-on-video regional obscurity: It was released in theaters nationwide by TriStar Pictures, and was directed by Hal Needham, the stuntman-turned-filmmaker responsible for major hits like Smokey And The Bandit and Cannonball Run.
Such incongruous circumstances naturally lead to conspiracy theories. But co-writer and producer Sam Bernard is quick to emphasize that, despite what you may have heard online, co-star Talia Shire was not the one holding up the Blu-ray release. The culprit, as he explains, was that the rights to the film were broken up and sold to different companies—domestic home video here, international TV rights there—a common practice in the ’80s.
Over the years, different contracts expired and rights reverted to their original owners, until Rad was back in the hands of executive producer Jack Schwartzman, who was married to Shire from 1980 until his death in 1994. That put Schwartzman and Shire’s sons Jack—a noted cinematographer—and Robert—actor, director, and lead singer of the band Rooney—in charge of the new 4K restoration, which was taken from an original camera negative.
The film itself is in the tradition of ’50s hot-rod movies and ’70s roller-disco epics, capitalizing on the then-relatively new phenomenon of BMX racing. This was pre-X Games, long before extreme sports crossed over into the mainstream. As Bernard recently described it to The A.V. Club, he literally stumbled onto the phenomenon, passing a group of kids in in L.A. park doing tricks on their bikes while he was thinking about subjects for a new script. He tried to ask the BMX riders what they were up to, but, he said with a laugh, “they didn’t want anything to do with some old fart like me.” (Bernard was 23 at the time.)
But Bernard knew he was on to something, pursuing the idea until he and creative partner Jeff Edwards took Needham to a BMX tournament, hoping to persuade him to take a chance on their script. They sat and watched the riders for a while, and then, as Bernard remembers: “I get the biggest moment in my life when Hal Needham turns to me, looks at me, and nods his head. I say to myself, ‘Oh wow, this is a movie.’” The final product differed substantially from the original idea, aimed at a younger audience than the teenagers for whom it was originally intended. That’s reflected in a certain apple-pie, all-American wholesomeness that permeates the film—ironic considering Rad was filmed in Canada.
The basic plot of the film is this: Cru (Bill Allen) is a teenager with a natural talent on a bike who gets the chance of a lifetime when big-time BMX race Hell Track comes to his small town. With the help of pro racer Christian (Lori Loughlin), Cru gets his skills up to professional level in an impressively short period of time—if only his mom would let him get out of taking the SATs. Add some big-city suits determined to ruin everyone’s good time, villainous pros with feathered hair and bad attitudes, and lots of BMX-dude slang, and you’ve got a perfect ’80s time capsule with the impressive stunt sequences you’d expect from Needham.
It’s affection for the era, as well as appreciation for those sweet moves, that’s kept Rad alive after going more than 30 years between home-video releases. Allen said that “it speaks to the power of [Rad] that it did gain momentum all those years,” adding that nowadays people who were kids in the ’80s are showing the movie to their kids in turn.“I think the fact that it never came out on Blu-ray or DVD somehow added to the mystique,” he added, saying that he knows all about sharing rare media through unofficial channels from growing up as a Grateful Dead fan. He also finds a certain beauty in the determination it takes to excel at BMX riding, saying:
[Rad] has such a special place in people’s hearts. They would watch it dozens, if not hundreds, of times, and then go out and try to emulate the tricks and end up in the ER and then get back on their bikes and try again until they did it. It’s not about vanquishing your enemies. It’s about doing a trick that’s beautiful and hard to do, and that’s self-gratifying… For the people who don’t get it, they don’t get it. I understand that [the movie] has the big hair and the synthesizer soundtrack and the cheese factor is off the charts. But for the people who love it, that’s part of the charm.
Allen wasn’t a BMX rider when the movie was filmed—“at the time I rode like every other kid, but never on the level that these guys were working at,” he said—but has since taken up the sport, learning from the guys who served as his stunt doubles in the film. “I learned a couple of tricks and hurt myself many, many times. It’s awesome,” he said, adding that his more comical wipeouts have inspired some new moves. “I’ve nearly punctured my diaphragm on a couple of occasions, and instead of lamenting it or bemoaning it, you just turn it into a trick. So now I’m the godfather of the ‘propeller,’ as we call it.” His other signature move is called the “no-footed nut buster,” which is as painful as it sounds. “I hit the wrong brake and really hurt myself in a comical fashion. Luckily there are about 200 angles of that, different vantage points taken on people’s cell phones. So that’s awesome. It’ll live forever,” he said. Now that’s dedication to your art.