With the release of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk next week, BASE jumping documentary Sunshine Superman couldn’t emerge at a better time. Winged-fliers pop up on every social network feed, while adverts for The Walk show Joseph Gordon-Levitt splashed on billboards, effortlessly stood on a wire. It’s easy to forget how these stunt-like performances are based on actual humans choosing to balance or leap off a cliff or building.
And for a fair few seconds, those who jump are simply dropping to the ground beneath. Two founders of the BASE jumping movement, Carl Boenish and his wife Jean managed to capture the minds of television-viewers across the world in the early 1980’s. This tragic tale captures the epic scale, and bold statement these men and women were making. Any type of extreme sport has had its fair share of victims, but from the comfort of your sofa, it truly is a marvel to watch how crazy, and how brave, these people truly are.
Sunshine Superman tells us of the birth of BASE jumping, beginning at El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Skilled, passionate jumpers take on the 3000ft mount regularly. Unfortunately for them, in 1978, it’s deemed an illegal act. But this crowd doesn’t take too much notice of “the laws of man”, and only respect the “laws of nature”. Boenish, an expert cinematographer, decided after working as aerial photographer on John Frankenheimer’s Gypsy Moths, to give up his day job and commit his life to filming these outstanding feats. Their experience takes us to buildings mid-construction in Houston and L.A., deemed easy missions as security is low on construction sites and the ridiculous skyscrapers qualify for BASE-jumping membership. The final trip is to Norway, whereby a BBC and ABC television production, hosted by David Frost, is due to capture the breaking of a Guinness World Record. But this is the last journey Carl Boenish takes. After his untimely death, he leaves a legacy of inspiration and reams of unforgettable footage that make up the majority of Sunshine Superman.
With The Byrds and Donovan on the soundtrack, it is no surprise that the term ‘free spirit’ is bandied about to inspire others. Perhaps in the 1980’s it was all the rage. Unfortunately, the flowery language that accompanies these moments can become tiresome and director Marah Strauch seems to believe in the mantra Carl swears by rather than challenging it. Nevertheless, akin to Man on Wire, Sunshine Superman contains awesome footage integral to the story and this alone is exhilarating to watch. Carl’s wife, Jean, is a vital interviewee and she expands in personal, poignant detail about the nature of those early days through to her final moments with him in Norway. She was also strict about the use of Carl’s films, so her support of the documentary ensures that it is shown here in all its glory.
It’s funny that in a world whereby we are criticised for instagramming everything, here is a man obsessed by nature and film in equal measure, confessing how he wouldn’t be as committed to BASE jumping without the camera attached to his head as he leaps off, capturing everything. Sunshine Superman doesn’t truly change the way you’ll see the world with its motivating messages. But the awe-inspiring scale, and enormous achievement of this man as he puts his life on the line, to reveal to audiences around the world how glorious BASE jumping is, is an absolute joy to behold.
This review was originally written for Culturefly, in September 2015