Wayne, a documentary about racer Wayne Gardner, slows down when it should speed up

The documentary Wayne chronicles the meteoric rise of Wayne Gardner to the peak of MotoGP racing and his success eclipsing the post-apocalyptic biker imagery in the Australian consciousness, thanks to films like Mad Max and Stone. Gardner essentially willed himself from Australian steel town Wollongong through the international racing ranks and onto the grid of motorcycling’s biggest stage. The documentary portrays the early years of Gardner’s life with innovative style, animating a portrait of working-class determination and knack for seizing the opportunity.

As cliched as it may sound, Gardner saw the 1971 motocross documentary On Any Sunday and walked out of the cinema determined to make “going fast” his life’s pursuit. As the race – and the film – rolls on, director Jeremy Sims and co-writers Matthew Metcalfe and Tim Woodhouse seem to take their own feet off the throttle.

From a formal standpoint, the early renderings of Gardner’s biography take on a whole new experience in animation. As Gardner and his family and friends recount the stories that defined his youth, a pen drawn doodle that you would have sketched in a school notebook comes to life.

When Gardner starts to fantasise about life as a racer and Japanese racing legend Mamoru Moriwaki arrives in Australia to scout talent, Gardner’s life becomes an anime. From the over-reminiscing of glory days riding through the Wollongong hills on dirt trails, all the way until Gardner’s traumatic debut in the Dutch Grand Prix, the anime style beautifully compliments the contribution of Gardner’s family and friends (especially long-time partner Donna-Lee Kahlbetzer).

Gardener’s sickening collision with Franco Uncini is where Wayne deals most directly with emotional trauma; the inherent risk of being strapped to these missiles with wheels. When the animation stops, Sims remixes roll after roll of magazine news footage to assemble a life that really unfolded in the public eye.

MotoGP is a sport with voyeuristic bloodlust hiding under the surface. Much like viewers of the sport, the experience of watching Wayne turned into yearning to go for the deeper, behind the scenes madness of Gardner’s life and the broader international racing culture at the time. There are moments when Wayne feels like such a wobbly rider that you’re expecting to be catapulted off track. The rivalry with U.S world champion Eddie Lawson feels like a rich source for drama and conflict, and suddenly all parties get fuzzy on the details. When there’s reference to Gardner’s unstoppable appetite for partying and flirtation, one expects additional probing and exploration.

The very best sporting documentaries make you feel as if you’re allowed inside the life of your sporting hero. You get under the bonnet (so-to-speak). James Toback’s film Tyson and Asif Kapadia’s film Senna are both examples of the unflinchingly raw. In an early interview with Gardner’s sister, she says that he’s the “golden child.” Wayne has every intention of maintaining Gardner’s golden glow.