Bodybuilding is a sport that I was never personally interested in, but I could see the appeal to others. These muscle-bound, hyper-focused people look like they could be real-life superheroes. Arnold Schwarzenegger is obviously the biggest success story from that world, and he’s featured prominently (in archival footage mainly from his own event) in filmmaker Frank Zarrillo’s documentary Gaspari. Bodybuilding icon from New Jersey Rich Gaspari is the film’s subject, who is the winner of the inaugural Arnold Classic in 1989.
There should be a drinking game for this movie anytime someone mentions the word “legend” in reference to Gaspari. The film shows footage from his competitive heyday in the 80s and early 90s, cut in between following him and other bodybuilders, mostly at the Arnold Classic. Late-night infomercials were another fixture in the 80s and 90s, and this documentary has that kind of feel. There could be another drinking game for all of the product placement going on here, but that could prove to be a deadly amount of consumption.
At just under two hours runtime, the movie is too long for what it is and repeats itself, but there are some interesting aspects, such as when the Arnold Classic show still went on during the pandemic but without its 200,000 attendees. How did bodybuilding reach Comic Con-like levels of fans attending? That’s an interesting question for another documentary. Also fascinating is how focused these athletes have to be to reach the pinnacle of the sport and how Rich is still that way today with his business life.
“…Bodybuilding icon from New Jersey…”
I’m not a bodybuilding fan, but I’m no stranger to that world. My dad was featured in some of the same fitness magazines that Gaspari graced the cover of over seventy times during his career. They both have supplement lines that have become their obsession post-sport and have gone through ups and downs in both business and life (but who hasn’t?). The burning desire for success is something that I see in them both. Athletes like former American Gladiator/Mr. Universe, Mike O’Hearn speaks glowingly about how Rich Gaspari influenced themselves and many others just by looking at his pictures in a magazine.
The majority of the film is spent on Gaspari employees and Gaspari himself talking about his accomplishments, business, and career. Gaspari is more for diehard fans, such as the super fan in the movie who follows him around, buying all his merchandise, rather than the casual onlookers such as myself. The movie briefly mentions his personal struggles and focuses a bit longer on his bankruptcy, but I would have enjoyed a rawer look at both the man and the sport. Something like Pumping Iron so many years ago with Arnold did so and was also a big inspiration for so many of these guys.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster is another excellent documentary that comes to mind, delving into the sport’s perils. Gaspari won’t blow your mind like Rich’s body definition back in the day, but it does give a surface-level look at a boy in Jersey who came from immigrant parents to grow up and fulfill the American dream.