"Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary" (1997) Review
There's a strange duality at the core of Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary.
For the uninitiated, the "Hands on a Hardbody" contest is something of a cliche, parodied in film and television for years. I've personally seen parodies of the contest on Family Guy and That 70's Show, just to name a couple, but the premise of the contest is simple. Keep your hand on a Nissan Hardbody truck. You can switch hands all you want, as long as when you switch both hands are on the truck. There's no leaning on the truck, you have to stay standing straight. There are five minute breaks every hour, and every six hours there are fifteen minute breaks. Twenty-plus people enter, one walks away with a brand new truck.
It's the kind of marketing gimmick that played well in the days of local radio, i.e. the 1990s where the documentary is firmly set, specifically in Longview, Texas. This is a cheap cheap documentary, shot on video tape and with the filmmakers and their microphones wandering in and out of the frame. That's not a knock against it mind you, just an expectation setter for what's to come. This isn't a super deep piece of work by design, but a chronicling of a strange event.
But that's the funny thing. It might be a breezy affair by design, but the there's a deceptive depth to Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary. These contestants know how bizarre their situation is, often calling it absurd, but as the hours tick by and you watch these poor people fall apart physically and mentally, you feel something for them.
Despite their pain, I laughed at them anyway. I just couldn't help it, especially when one contestant compared the contest to the movie Highlander in a way that's so damn funny and obvious that I kind of feel bad for bringing it up here. I don't know how else to phrase this, but for fans of mock-u-mentaries like This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show, the very real people of Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary feel like cut characters from those movies. They're larger than life personalities, and the various cutaway interviews spliced throughout the documentary give such a clear vision of their humanity and humor.
And that's the duality of Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary. The absurd humor slowly vanishes over time to provide an empathetic look into the lives of each person. You won't care too much about the first ten contestants to leave, but the last few will stick in your memory long after the documentary is done, especially because of how rough their condition is. I won't spoil how long the contest goes on for, but I will say that it goes on for over sixty hours.
Yes, you read that right. According to previous contestants, it's gone on for over eighty hours in previous years. And again, it's an insane contest, but everyone has a reason for being there. Some people really need a free truck to be able to afford the lifestyle they want to live. One is a former winner of the contest looking to prove that he can win it all over again. One woman has an entire church congregation behind her as she goes on a spiritual journey during the contest. There are so many more to cover, but I'll leave you to find the others for yourself.
It might sound like a thin premise for an hour and a half documentary, but you won't believe (no pun intended) how much mileage the filmmakers got from the concept. The documentary is so well known that it inspired a Broadway musical and even caught the eye of Robert Altman who was interested in dramatizing the documentary into a film shortly before he died.
Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary has a bizarrely huge reputation for its small scope, but its well earned. I'll be honest, I'd never heard of the documentary and saw it by pure chance this week, but I see why it's drawn so much attention over decades. Don't go in expecting something slick and super polished. Get into the film's odd rhythm and fall in love with it. I don't think that's too tall of an order though.