Film tell of ride of a lifetime
When snowboarding legend Craig Kelly died tragically in an avalanche in 2003, the riding world went silent in honor.
Exactly four years to the day of his death, Kelly will again be honored as the X-Dance Film Festival screens the documentary of his life, "Let It Ride," as their closing film.
The 2006 Whistler Film Festival Best Film winner was a labor of love for veteran sports action filmmaker, Jacques Russo. The two first became acquainted in the late 1980s. Russo was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, working as a mountaineering filmmaker, when he was alerted that an up and coming snowboarder was living just over the border in Mt. Vernon, Washington, near Mt. Baker. The two met and the rest is history. Russo began chronicling Kelly’s meteoric rise on the emerging snowboarding scene, both on the slopes and behind them.
Kelly would often call Russo to follow him to mountains all over the world, all the time allowing Russo to record his thoughts and feelings. Their first film together, "The Smooth Groove," was aired on A&E and the Discovery Channel as an introduction to the new sport and its No. 1 athlete. They came together for five other films and Kelly was always showing up in Russo’s other projects.
After Kelly’s death, Russo began receiving phone calls from filmmakers, asking if they could use the footage to create a movie about Kelly. It was a year later that Russo decided it was only fitting that, as a filmmaker himself, he should be the one to put together a documentary of the life of the icon.
"To be able to take 20 years and make a piece, I feel pretty privileged," Russo said.
Russo was committed to making the movie about the story, not just the action, using Kelly’s life as a record of the history of snowboarding.
"It’s not about the sport. it’s about the history," Russo said.
The movie opens with Kelly on a mountain, reflecting on how he it like he did his life with excitement and courage.
"Craig’s message is about more than, ‘go out and ride,’" Russo said. "It’s about how you live your life."
Russo used his extensive interviews with Kelly to narrate the film. Friends and family contribute throughout the film, but Russo was committed to making "Let It Ride" be a testimony of Kelly’s life.
The filmy then unfolds into the story of Kelly, who grew up with his divorced father, hanging out with other boys from his street. Those boys got him involved with the new sport at the nearby Mt. Baker. Kelly was a natural, and in a short time, became one of the first stars of the sport, with its reputation and longevity, all riding on him.
Kelly was the perfect poster boy, he loved riding and he loved people, and the world soon responded. He first became the face of Sims Snowboard and later, following a messy break-up with Sims, hooked up with Jake Burton to make Burton snowboards the official equipment of the sport.
Three overall World Championships and seven World Cup wins later, Kelly had truly established himself as the king of the sport. It was then that the spotlight began to wear on Kelly. Turned off by the interest in the hype and not the sport, Kelly began looking for new mountains to ride.
The adventurer in Kelly led him to look for the largest peaks to conquer and started backcountry riding. Kelly, often dubbed the "Godfather of Freeriding," was a pioneer, becoming the first to conquer unchartered territory on his board. It also led him top take his freeriding one step further and become certified as the first backcountry snowboarding guide It was while working toward this goal, that Kelly was killed by the avalanche.
Kelly’s deep and introspective feelings about how his passion for the sport reflected in his attitude toward life, dominates the film.
"He would go riding when things would go wrong," Russo said. "It’s about taking the risk, always making the last move and putting it on the line that’s Craig."
His historic rise to snowboarding superstardom and his butter-like carvings on both competitive courses and untouched open terrain, almost pale in comparison to Kelly’s thoughts on life and making the most and best of it.
"Some of what he says really hits home, because you realize how it ends," Russo said. "He was really a profound guy."
Still, the visual backdrop for Kelly’s narration is stunning. A combination of footage from Russo, IMAX, Warren Miller and others, show Kelly’s illustrious career on a board in vivid color and effect.
The film also touches on Kelly’s connection to other people. Russo said that he was close to a lot of people and was always excited to share his sport with newcomers, especially disadvantaged children and others who might not otherwise have access to the sport. He said it was Kelly’s human connection that made his message on embracing life and the tragedy of his death that much more impacting.
"For a lot of people, it changed their lives," Russo said. "It was a simple message to seize today, to live for today."
The filmmaking process was also cathartic for both Russo and Kelly’s friends.
"We’d get to this spot that he was gone and they hadn’t dealt with that," Russo said.
Russo’s grieving came as he spent a year and a half listening to Kelly talking about life.
"I became closer to him throughout the process," Russo said.
After completing production of the film, Russo began considering where he could show it. He started in his backyard by entering the film into the Whistler Film Festival, where it was embraced by both the industry and critics alike. Fifteen hundred people were at the film’s premiere.
"The response is so phenomenal," Russo said. "It’s a great message and a total tribute to the guy."
He then learned of the X-Dance Film Festival running concurrent with the Sundance Film Festival. After hearing that X-Dance shut down the festival in 2003 after Kelly died, Russo felt he should return the respect by contributing the film.
"Doing a festival is something you do from the heart," Russo said.
X-Dance decided that such an important film should close the festival.
Russo is excited about the Park City screening for many reasons. He hopes to expose the film to the greater film industry that will be in town, but he is also excited to present the film to a town mixed with both accomplished snowboarders and non-riders alike.
"What we wanted to do is have a film that everybody can see," Russo said.
It’s a film that wraps up amazing sports action with Kelley’s prophetic wisdom on making the of most life something that everyone can relate to.
"I’m just trying to enjoy the journey," says Kelly in the film.
Everyone in the area will have the chance to see it on Monday, Jan. 22 at 9:30 at the Main Street Mall, 333 Main Street. Admission is free.
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Hotel occupancy in the Park City area during Sundance is projected to drop dramatically from a typical year as organizers shift the event online.