Hands on a Hardbody, a musical adaptation of the cult-classic documentary film, ran at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in a production directed by Neil Pepe last summer.
Kevin Berne

A Hard Body, Repossessed


A version of this story ran in the January 2013 issue.

Above: Hands on a Hardbody, a musical adaptation of the cult-classic documentary film, ran at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in a production directed by Neil Pepe last summer.

Hands on a Hardbody, the contest, disappeared behind a tragic cloud in 2005. The contest’s dramatic afterlife won’t die.

During its 13-year run, the annual competition in Longview grew from an offbeat promotion by an East Texas car dealership—a test of “mind over matter and mind over mind,” in the words of 1992 winner Benny Perkins—into a worldwide spectacle and the subject of a cult-classic documentary film.

Camera crews flocked to Longview from as far away as London to chronicle the contest, which boasted a deceptively simple premise: A couple dozen competitors place their hands on a Nissan pickup, stand there for days, and the last contestant to remove his or her hand wins the truck. Winners were frequently invited to appear on national talk shows.

The contest took a dark turn early one morning in September 2005 when a contestant named Richard “Ricky” Vega walked away from the truck 48 hours into the event. Vega wandered away from the dealership and across the street, where witnesses said he broke into a Kmart, broke a lock on a gun case, and shot himself to death. The competition was immediately halted and hasn’t been held since.

“When that young feller killed himself, the contest was snakebit,” Perkins says. “It put a bad taste in everybody’s mouth, and everybody lost interest. It took the fire out of the whole thing, and I hate that he did it, I really do, because they’d still be having the contest today if he hadn’t.”

Nearly four years have passed since an out-of-court settlement between the dealership and Vega’s widow. And while the dealer says he doesn’t intend to bring the contest back, fans hope 2013 will be a year of redemption.

Hands on a Hardbody, a musical adapted from the hard-to-find 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body, is set to open on Broadway March 21, following a seven-week run last spring at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. Adapted by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner Doug Wright, the production stars Keith Carradine as elderly contestant J.D. Drew and features music by Broadway composer Amanda Green and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Previews start Feb. 23.

In July, the musical’s producers flew Perkins and the real J.D. Drew from Longview to San Diego to watch the show. Perkins, who served as the documentary’s philosophical and hyperbole-prone narrator, says it’s the best musical he’s seen since 1969’s Paint Your Wagon.

“There was times you’d be sitting there laughing,” he says. “Then you’d be crying. Next time, you stand up and applaud. The guy who played me, he grew a moustache, and he kind of favored me some, and he talked the character perfect. Back then, I was real cocky.”

The film captures plenty of East Texas quirk, tracking the contestants’ unraveling sanity as hours tick into days, but director S.R. Bindler refrains from poking fun. Some aspirants to the keys are genuinely desperate for new wheels; others just want to test their mettle.

The contest’s winner-take-all structure gives the documentary its urgency and feature-film-style narrative. It was a seminal work—one of the first in a wave of populist, audience-friendly documentaries such as Spellbound and Murderball.

“It was a documentary that played for a movie audience. For me, at that time, I hadn’t really experienced that,” says Bindler, a Longview native.

“There’s something for everybody. There’s a mix of the high-brow and the low-brow. If you’re intellectual, there are some pretty heady themes and pretty interesting plot developments, and if you’re just looking for a raw, emotional ride, there’s that too.”

The film traveled the festival circuit and caught fire in Austin, playing at the now-defunct Dobie Theater for more than a year, where audiences sat “elbow to elbow to elbow,” according to Perkins. After limited releases on VHS and DVD, the film more or less disappeared. Determined viewers can find a used copy for $93 on eBay.

Legendary filmmaker Robert Altman was planning to adapt the documentary as a feature film when he died in 2006.

“We responded to a couple of other prominent filmmakers after Altman showed interest, but we’ve never taken it to market,” Bindler says. “That’s another reason this film still has an underground cult following . . . it hasn’t been exploited and overexposed. People are still very curious and interested. It’s that film you’ve heard about that you aren’t able to see.”

That’s about to change. The musical’s Broadway debut will coincide with the documentary’s re-release. Bindler has remastered the film, and plans to include about an hour of bonus footage on a two-DVD set to be self-distributed on the website www.handsonahardbodythemovie.com, which he expects to be functional by mid-February.

Bindler and his partners are also planning an April re-release event in Austin, along with a 20-venue statewide tour.

Jim Watson, an English professor at LeTourneau University in Longview, used to take his students to the Hands on a Hardbody competition each September, and “imposes” the documentary on incoming instructors as an “introduction to the local culture.”

“It was simply a tragedy for the contest to end that way,” Watson said. “The way it ended makes it difficult to talk about, but maybe this musical—the way it celebrates the time when it was new and fresh and nothing bad had happened yet—maybe that will be an occasion to talk about it.”

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to remove an error. The Observer regrets the error.