During the late 19th century an impressionable Launceston Elliot falls under the spell of the charismatic bodybuilder Sandow The Magnificent. Seeking out his idol, he becomes his protégée in Alexander Cooper’s biopic Sandow.
Despite him not competing in over 40 years, the most famous bodybuilder in the world undoubtedly remains Arnold Schwarzenegger. Using his bodybuilding success as a launchpad for his film career, Schwarzenegger burst into the public consciousness with a Golden Globe-winning performance in Bob Rafelson’s 1976 film Stay Hungry alongside acting heavyweights Jeff Bridges and Sally Field. Following that he starred in the ground-breaking sports documentary Pumping Iron, then a few years later 1982’s Conan the Barbarian saw Arnold Schwarzenegger become a bona fide movie star and the rest, as they say, is history.
100 years before Schwarzenegger became synonymous with the world of bodybuilding and entertainment, another European superstar was born named Eugen Sandow who, Like Arnold, became a world-famous bodybuilder and showman. Sandow was born in Germany in 1867 and has a life story, brought to us by director Alexander Cooper in his debut film, that is remarkably similar to Schwarzenegger’s, so much so that while I was watching the film, comparing the two lives became pretty inescapable.
Told in flashback, Cooper’s Sandow is a biographical drama that follows the usual route of many previous biopics – a narrator speaks to us and takes us on a journey through the key incidents of its subject’s life. There is nothing wrong with this style in itself, Orson Welles used the same technique in Citizen Kane, but in choosing this route the film falls into the same trap as many other biopics. Director Cooper picks a greatest hits compilation of Sandow’s life and then simply glosses over them, failing to dig any deeper into events to try and discover why or how Sandow is acting in the way he is. What we do get from the film, is that Sandow was a colourful character who led a very colourful life, but visually it lacks much of the spark and humour that a person like Sandow would undoubtedly have. The colour is drained with the film shot more like a tribute than a party, and in the 105-minute run time we don’t learn a great deal about Sandow’s persona other than he liked drinking, womanising, and bodybuilding, and those vices on their own just aren’t interesting enough.
The performances of the cast are also a little mannered with the dialogue from some coming across as stilted and unnatural. The narration is the biggest culprit of this, done by director Cooper in the guise of Launceston Elliot – Sandow’s protégé. Elliot is the audience’s key to unlocking the life of Sandow and it is Elliot who tells us his story; however, Cooper is haphazard with his dialogue and shows little characterisation. What was needed was a warm and friendly delivery to enable the audience to feel involved. But while Timo Kervinen manages to bring some charisma to the role of Sandow, it is Tiffany-Ellen Robinson as his wife Blanche who really shows her class. There are also many noticeable technical issues with regard to the sound and lighting, Cooper has tried to remedy some of the issues, but they are still prominent throughout the film, and even putting those to one side, Sandow remains a somewhat flat and curiously subdued film.
There are some interesting ideas mixed in with curious directorial choices. Cooper chooses to draw out scenes that you would not expect, while others that should have been dramatic high points sometimes feel rushed and unfinished. But considering it is a film about one of the founders of bodybuilding, an activity is well known for blood, sweat, and glory, it ultimately fails to capture the pizazz.
As a debut feature from a relatively new director, Sandow is a good learning curve and, although it doesn’t quite work for him this time, I’ve no doubt that much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alexander Cooper will be back.