Classic Documentary "On Any Sunday" Turns 50, Takes Us Back to 1970s Motorcycle Racing

Back in 1971, director Bruce Brown began work on his motorcycle documentary "On Any Sunday," and it was meant to be a comprehensive look at motorcycle racing. It was in fact so good when complete that it was ultimately nominated for a 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
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Brown used his love for motorcycles and the people who rode them to make an epic documentary that laid out the talents required to compete in various forms of racing. Brown focused his unique camera setups on the greats of the time, from Mert Lawwill to David Aldana. Some call On Any Sunday the single greatest motorcycle film ever made, and it went a long way toward rehabilitating the reputation of motorcyclists around the world.

As Brown had just completed his surfing epic The Endless Summer, he was intent on capturing motorcycle racing from his own point of view. With support of his friends Steve McQueen, Malcolm Smith and Mert Lawwill, Brown built the film around the action in all the disciplines of motorcycle racing. But his focus was on the riders, mechanics and the community of motorcycling that made the film a tour de force.

On Any Sunday
Large sections of the film focused on Lawwill’s battle to regain the Grand National #1 plate in dirt track and road racing, It also featured Steve McQueen’s obsession with privateer racing in the desert and at the Elsinore Grand Prix, Malcolm Smith’s incredible endurance and unmatched skills during races like the International Six Days Trial and Baja races. Other segments of the film also comprehensively documented hillclimbing and trials races.

After finishing on the podium consistently in 1964 and 1965, Lawwill took his first AMA National title at the Sacramento Mile and ultimately led to his induction in the AMA Hall of Fame. Lawwill also went on to become a renowned motorcycle frame designer and builder who became a major player in the birth of mountain biking. His designs for mountain bikes won national and world titles.

Now, 50 years later, Bruce Brown Films has released a re-mastered and digitally enhanced 50th Anniversary On Any Sunday version of the film, and the color correction, image restoration and surround sound upgrade of the original audio and soundtrack takes you straight back to the wild 1970’s.

Now with the advent of YouTube videos, X-Games competitions and GoPro equipment as common as fast food, On Any Given Sunday is a revelation and a reminder of just how difficult it was to make a film 50 years ago.

On Any Sunday
Brown passed on in 2017, but this reclaimed version of On Any Sunday will surely cement his legacy as a documentarian for a new generation of motorcycle fanatics.

And the action was anything but brand-specific, as bikes from Harley Davidson, Honda, Triumph, Montesa, Husqvarna, Yamaha, Suzuki, BSA, CZ, Bultaco and Hodaka all featured prominently in the story.

Brown said that, to achieve a particular shot he was forced to adapt his methods to the challenges of filming motorcycle racing. For instance, he not only had to take on the vagaries of weather, but he was also forced to schedule is such a way as to accommodate the conditions.

“You have to find a good location to shoot,” Brown said of one particularly difficult shot. “We tried and tried to get a shot with a rider caked with mud. We finally did get the shot, but for a while, it seemed like we never would.”

On Any Sunday
The film was backed in large part by McQueen’s company, Solar Productions.

Brown was used to working with long telephoto lenses from his surf film experience, but he was forced to improvise when it came to On Any Sunday.

A couple of his innovations were achieving a mechanical slow-motion effect using 24-volt batteries in his 12-volt film cameras to create the desired effect. Brown also designed and built a helmet camera to place on riders, and managed to overcome the bulk of film cameras available at the time to capture fantastic images of on-track action.

If you want to see the re-released version of On Any Sunday, you can find a location or set up your own screening here.

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