Formula One is back in cinemas this week. ‘1’ (now retitled 1: Life on the Limit) has gone from cult hit inside the F1 community following a private screening at the US GP in 2012 to mainstream hit, topping the box office at iTunes in the USA and winning glowing reviews from ‘serious’ critics. It gets a limited release starting today at the Empire Leicester Square in London (this link has more details, if you’re in or near our glittering capital). And whether you are local or not, it is worth the trip — you don’t want to see ‘1’ on your TV; it’s big and beautiful and extremely loud with a fantastic soundtrack, properly cinematic in the way Rush was, only with real footage.
1: Life on the Limit has its heart in the ‘Killing Years’ when racing drivers looked like male models and died horrible deaths and the film’s producer Michael Shevloff and director Paul Crowder were F1-obessesed kids, in awe of the glamour of F1 and only too aware of its darkness. It’s a film they have waited years to make. It’s a conventional documentary only in the sense that its basic components — archive footage and 50 newly filmed interviews — are the meat and veg of the documentary filmmaker, but its Crowder’s award-winning editing rather than some modish device that brings it to life.
Given the blessing of Bernie Ecclestone from the start, the movie had access to just about everything ever shot at a Grand Prix. “We had 250 two hour DVDs to go through and everything in the Brunswick library and all FOM’s footage,” says Shevloff, “But it was Alain Boisnard’s images of Francois Cevert — originally shot for Total — that really capture the mood of the film.”
The narrative arc of the film deals, at times critically and at times brutally, with F1’s unnecessarily laborious route to safer cars and circuits. It ends, inevitably, with 1 May 1994 and a potent interview with Professor Sid Watkins (in what must have been one of his last filmed interviews), clearly still coming to terms with a sense he let Senna down that weekend. Watkins, along with Bernie and Max Mosley (not just Jackie Stewart) are the agents of change here, the heroes. Jacky Ickx is the unrepentant villain, despite his 1970 crash, vividly shown in the film.
Crowder can recall the crash, as well as those which killed Roger Williamson and Tom Pryce. As he says: “But that was just Formula One then, you didn’t question it. It was that or James Hunt with a beautiful blonde. But that’s what makes F1 so perfect for cinema, the swings from triumph to tragedy, it’s classic movie structure; make them laugh then make them cry.”
The film’s success, largely driven at first by word-of-mouth after that screening in Austin, has only been boosted by the, er, rush of F1 movies right now. “The James Hunt movie has made people think about that era,” says Crowder, “they did a great job shooting F1 from cinematic angles, our job has been to make existing footage look and feel cinematic.” Shevloff meanwhile pays tribute to possible the greatest F1 film of all, Senna: “Senna was a fantastic movie about a man, ours is a movie about a generation.”