Review by Alana Odegard.
Chances are you have heard of Jón Páll Sigmarsson. You probably know him as Jón Páll the weight lifter, the bodybuilder, the power lifter or, perhaps for his ultimate claim to fame, as “the world’s strongest man” (he won the World’s Strongest Man competition a total of four times between 1984 and 1990).
The documentary Larger than Life (Thetta er Ekkert Mál), released in Iceland in 2006, pays tribute to the late Jón Páll’s incredible physical prowess and includes plenty of footage featuring pictures, newspaper clippings and television coverage of the numerous competitions he entered (and won) over the course of his career.
It certainly is hard to take your eyes off of the gigantic man on screen, with his shock of short blond hair, lifting unbelievable amounts of weight, rolling cars, tossing cabers, and heaving boulders above his head.
In fact, Larger than Life is in part so “watchable” because its subject is a man who seems to have as much charisma as he does muscle mass. The film not only showcases Jón Páll’s ability to amaze and astound due to how much weight he could lift, but also his gift for entertaining.
Included in the documentary are, what can only be described as quintessential 80s commercials featuring a laughing, “acting,” and even singing Jón Páll (all the while plugging products of course). Needless to say, the commercials provide as interesting a look back on Icelandic culture as they do on the man himself.
A Jón Páll fan, or anyone who wants to find out more about what goes into making a “strongest man,” will surely get their fix through this film.
Whether it’s learning about his hefty but healthy diet (he consumed up to 20,000 calories a day) or the workout regimes which demonstrated his superhuman self-discipline, the film covers everything you want to know about Jón Páll’s rise to fame.
Interviews with Jón Páll’s parents and siblings include their memories of Jón Páll during his childhood, some of which are reenacted against the idyllic scenery of the Icelandic countryside.
Not surprisingly, from a young age Jón Páll was no stranger to physical labor, hauling water pails, helping his father on seal hunts and working from dawn until dusk.
Although director Steingrímur Jón Thórdarson has centered the film around the professional achievements which made Jón Páll famous, what really draws the viewer in is hearing about the other titles apart from “strongest man” that those closest to the man of muscles knew him by.
Hearing the man of muscles referred to as “the bookworm,” “world’s greatest father” or just as the soft spoken, shy gentleman “who gave respect and therefore got respect back again” is a stark contrast to the image of the self proclaimed Icelandic Viking whose answer to any test of physical strength was to shout: “This is no haul for Jón Páll!” (“Ekkert mál fyrir Jón Pál!”) at the top of his lungs.
It is seeing these two sides of the man, the fierce competitor and the contemplative family man, that make this film something special.
The documentary does run a little long (it is just shy of two hours) and eventually does begin to wander and lose its focus. But one gets the impression that the makers of the film simply wanted to pack in as much about the man into the documentary as they possibly could (perhaps to the film’s detriment towards the end).
All in all, the account of Jón Páll’s climb to the top and subsequent fall amidst speculations of steroid use, his financial worries, infidelity and eventual death is both touching and revealing.
As the title of the film suggests, Larger than Life is a love letter to Jón Páll and to Iceland. As one Icelander recently told me, “Jón Páll is part of my Icelandic identity, my soul, and because of that I feel I own a little bit of him.”
It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that when the film was released it broke documentary ticket sales records in Iceland (a record that it held for nearly four years after its release).
Above all, one thing is for sure, you will walk away from this film knowing a whole lot more about who Jón Páll was, rather than just what he was known for.
Alana Odegard – [email protected]
Ready and willing to watch anything that comes her way, Alana has an unquenchable thirst for the motion picture art form. Alana studied film as part of her B.A. degree and as the story so often goes, she is tirelessly trying to find ways to surround herself with the enchanting world of film. She hopes this passion will one day spill over from the realm of pastime to likewise envelop that of fulltime day-job as well.