From the opening Stevie Smith quote – “I just get worried about, I’m gonna be old and have nothing to show for, like, what I’ve done” – Anthill’s new feature-length documentary, Long Live Chainsaw, is heartbreaking, earnest, and raw.
Film director Darcy Wittenburg said in an interview
that no stone was left unturned in the making of the film, and it's true. Starting at the beginning, at Stevie's birth in 1989, we see baby photos, hear about his early life from his mother and sister, and see the humble trailer where he grew up in Cassidy, outside of Nanaimo, Vancouver Island. We learn how he got his first BMX bike - his mother, Tianna Smith, traded 12 pies for it - and see newspaper clippings from the local papers to commemorate his first wins as a child. Then, of course, we watch him start mountain biking, yearn to be the best, and, eventually, get there.
The idea for the film came from sorting through footage to create a video for Stevie's memorial shortly after his death. Still, it took the next few years before Wittenburg, former team manager Gabe Fox, and the rest of the crew behind the film had processed his loss enough to shoulder the project. The work began in earnest in 2020. In addition to sifting through archival footage, the project required dozens of interviews, starting with those who were closest to Stevie and extending out to those the filmers thought would best round out the storyline.
Some of the sections show not only what mountain biking did for Stevie, but what mountain biking can do for anyone: “As hard as he rode biking, he probably would have been just as hard at doing drugs,” Tianna said. In turn, the film reminds us of the impact a rider like Stevie can have on an entire community by showing what someone from that community can do, and on an entire sport.
We hear his mom’s perspective on the shuttle laps she drove for him, recognizing that those laps came not only from knowing that Stevie absolutely loved mountain biking, but also from wanting to protect her son and help him stay out of trouble. It seems like everyone in Stevie's life knew he would be on the edge no matter what, whether on a bike or elsewhere in life.
Stevie’s relationship with his mother is at the heart of the film, and it’s a story both charming and devastating. Tianna’s composure and resilience, raising Stevie and his sister as a single mother and pouring so much of herself into helping him thrive, is exquisite. As viewers, we wince knowing the pain that will come later.
Without giving away too much, the film chronicles Stevie's career while giving time and space to several riders and industry figures who knew Stevie and helped him become the legendary rider he eventually became.
When the movie chronology reaches May 2016, we know what’s going to happen. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
The film captures the abruptness of Stevie’s death at a moment when his career was gaining momentum again, the devastating ripple effects of that loss to mountain biking as a whole, and the intense surrealism of grief.
It’s hard for a film to do justice to a tragedy. It’s not delicate, neat, or pretty. I think Anthill handled Stevie's death as elegantly as possible, and that is to say that the movie doesn’t try to make it easier by sanitizing it or fitting it into a tidy box. The last quarter of the movie is gut-wrenching to watch, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. To say I had trouble making it through that section would be an understatement. A glimpse of Jordie Lunn at a memorial for Stevie twists the knife.
The film structure feels sensible and helps us transition from high highs to low lows and back to some resolution. The story is broken into chapters separated by date headings, beginning with his birth and ending with his death. Throughout the chapters in between, the film develops several story arcs including Stevie's season-long battle with Gee, which is especially compelling after all the time devoted to interviews with Gee about his relationship with Stevie and what it meant for Gee to watch Stevie develop into a friend, top competitor, and, at times, arch nemesis.
Behind the story, too, is the timeless rags-to-riches tale of someone who succeeded despite not having an even playing field, who climbed out of poverty through sheer talent, determination, and grit, and against all odds, became the best in the world. Through the film's celebration of Stevie's personality, too, one of the take-home messages is to live life to the fullest and cherish all the fleeting moments.
Long Live Chainsaw isn’t just a sports documentary, nor is it a shiny retrospective on Stevie’s lifetime achievements. It’s nuanced, it’s complex, and it’s a sincere look at a real person who was very much alive, and then wasn’t. We knew Anthill would make a great mountain biking movie, but Long Live Chainsaw would be worth the watch even with no bikes. Anthill has done Stevie proud.
Long Live Chainsaw is now available
on iTunes, Apple TV, Vimeo on Demand, Google Play, Amazon, Xbox Movie or Vudu. All proceeds from the film will benefit the Stevie Smith Legacy Foundation