Brendt Barbour kicked off the 17th annual Bicycle Film Fest the same way he has kicked off all the others– by leading the crowd at the San Damiano Mission in Greenpoint in a call-and-response chant of “bikes rock.” After the chant finished echoing off the saints painted on the church’s domed ceiling, it was time for Blonde Redhead members Simone and Amedeo Pace to perform a live score for the acclaimed bicycle race documentary A Sunday In Hell. For 90 minutes, the two musicians and their band brought orchestral accompaniment to a film in which a symphony of 25 cameras covered the 1976 running of the Paris Roubaix bicycle race.
Once the audience settled into the Mission’s pews, inherited from the church’s former Holy Slovak Family congregation, Bicycle Film Festival host Brendt Barbur welcomed everyone, introduced Tomas Leth, son of director Jorgen Leth, and talked about the film’s backstory.
The film opens with a paint brush greasing a bike chain and the live score began modestly as well. When the race began the music picked up its tempo and rolled along with the peloton projected above. The Paris Roubaix, a one-day professional race that goes from Paris to Roubaix in Belgium, is called the Hell of the North for its muddy cobblestone course that at times had racers carrying their bikes alongside riders that had to push as hard as they could to stay upright. The race starts on pavement but the second half gives way to imperial-era cobbles. Polyester-clad onlookers cheer on the gut-wrenching athleticism.
The tension from the resulting crashes and gashes was heightened by Simone and Amedeo, who along with their band tried to convey the drama of sport in the language of music. The sashay of the violins pushed with the gyrating legs and the soft-tipped drumsticks boomed as bike after bike went bust. The audience was brought into the rumbling mind of an exhausted bicycle racer, right down to the little hums and jingles you hear in your head when you’re too in the moment to hear anything around you.
“A Sunday In Hell” plays again tonight at Greenpoint’s San Damiano Mission at 8:30pm, click here for tickets.