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WYPR Arts

Documentary Chronicles Steroid Use

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" is a new documentary about steroids by someone with intimate knowledge. The filmmaker is a former steroid user. Reporter Karen Michel visited Chris Bell and his family, and she has this story of how a kid with an innocent upbringing turned to performance-enhancing drugs.

KAREN MICHEL: Chris Bell is in his 30s and lives in LA. As a kid, his idols were huge: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, The Hulk, Spiderman and Captain America.

Mr. CHRIS BELL (Filmmaker): They've all went through some sort of transformation that's very similar to what happens when somebody takes steroids, so that they become, like, superhuman. I interviewed some pro body builders, and they all said the same thing: They're all inspired by comic books. For me and my brothers, it was more of the visuals of, like, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Hulk Hogan.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster")

(Soundbite of song, "Eye of the Tiger")

Mr. BELL: I wanted to tear off my shirt and by ripped, tanned and larger than life.

But in reality, I was a fat, pale kid from Poughkeepsie.

MICHEL: But Bell worked out, and he became the strongest kid in his school. At the time, he says, he didn't take steroids.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster")

Mr. BELL: I couldn't ask for a better mom. She did everything for her three boys. We went to church three times a week, and she even taught Sunday school.

MICHEL: In the style of Michael Moore, Chris Bell puts himself at the core of his film, which, not surprisingly, was produced by the same folks who produced "Fahrenheit 911" and "Bowling for Columbine." "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" never says these are the good guys and those are the bad ones. Filmmaker Bell neither supports nor condemns the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but he does tell us a lot about them.

Mr. BELL: A lot of educational films try to scare kids into conducting behavior in the way that society says that they should conduct their behavior. And in our film, our film says, hey, look. You know, we've looked at all the studies. We've examined them up and down, and here's the truth about steroids. And so a lot of people actually don't like that because it's not maybe as negative as they would like it to be.

MICHEL: Stay-at-home mom Rosemary remembers when Chris told her he was making a film.

Ms. ROSEMARY BELL: At one point, he said he wanted to talk to us about steroids. I thought he would tell us that they never tried them and that they were all natural as they always had been.

MICHEL: In a key scene, all three brothers are home for dinner with the parents in their apartment in Poughkeepsie.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster")

Ms. BELL: I only cooked two pounds. I hope it's enough.

MICHEL: His oldest brother, Mike, called Mad Dog, youngest brother Mark, nicknamed Smelly, and filmmaker Chris.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster")

Mr. BELL: When I went to USC, I didn't do any drugs. I didn't do anything. So I...

Ms. BELL: Because you're a good boy.

Mr. BELL: Well - and then I got to a point where I actually tried steroids. I tried Winstrol, which is injections. And...

Ms. BELL: You injected a needle in yourself?

Unidentified Man: It's just in muscle (unintelligible).

Mr. BELL: Yeah, 'cause you get to a point where you're like, ah, I'm kind of getting out of shape. I don't feel like I used to. The reason I stopped doing it was because I thought it was immoral. I thought it was so wrong, and like, what if my parents found out I did this?

Ms. BELL: I think it's really hard to hear that you tried them and everything, but...

Mr. BELL: For you. It's not hard for me.

Ms. BELL: What I'm saying is that it's hard to hear it. And what about Mark? I mean...

MICHEL: Soon, we learn that Mark and Mike are still using steroids.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster")

Ms. BELL: I want people to know that our boys are much more than having tried steroids, and I don't want anyone to wipe out what my boys are about by that word. So it crushed me to my soul that they would try something like that, because not only did we bring them up not to try anything like that, but - with God and church, which is very important me, and - not that I don't sin. We have a problem. Everybody falls short, you know? But I just was so surprised that they would go down that road.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster")

Mr. BELL: I really thought muscles were going to be the answer. But all they got me was a job selling gym memberships.

MICHEL: After he got his degree at USC, Chris got a job at Gold's Gym in Venice, California. His father was not pleased. But it was that experience that led to the idea of the film, and good chunks of it take place in Gold's, where we meet a 50-year-old body builder.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster")

Mr. BELL: How long have you been here?

PAUL: Since 1980. Of course, Arnold was on the scene, and Arnold - nobody had ever seen anybody look like Arnold. Sylvester Stallone had just done the Rocky movies, and he was the type of guy that I could relate to.

Mr. BELL: Paul even got a chance to work with Sly in "Over the Top."

PAUL: I should be able to blow them away real easy.

(Soundbite of movie, "Over the Top")

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster")

PAUL: I couldn't believe that the dream coming true.

Mr. BELL: And did you get a chance to do it again?

PAUL: No, but I'm hoping to get back in shape to be able to make that a reality. You could be on the street one day, and you can be in a penthouse the next. Anything's possible.

MICHEL: In "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," we see that Paul lives in a van in the parking lot of the gym. I went to Gold's, hoping to find him. His camper wasn't in the lot, but parked just outside on the street, there were eight vans and campers. Paul clearly wasn't alone. And that's pretty much the point of the film and its subtitle: "The Side Effects of Being American."

Mr. BELL: To me, it was, you know, definitely this idea of that's America was all about, being bigger, stronger, faster than everyone else.

MICHEL: No matter what you have to do, or what it does to you.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.