This is the story of young men - best friends and brothers - coming of age and dealing with rivalries, expectations of parents, business competitors and life and death on the race track. In Milwaukee at the turn of the 20th century, the Davidson brothers and their friend Bill Harley launch a motorcycle company that will eventually become an iconic brand and an enduring symbol of Americana. Harley and the Davidsons reveals that great opportunities can be forged not only through ingenuity and innovative design, but also from brotherhood and friendship, guts, and an ironclad will to survive.
Pace and rhythm account for a large portion of a film's success. If it's too short or moves too quickly, the film could shortchange plot points or characters and alienate an audience. If a film is too long and pads out extraneous scenes the audience can become bored with the characters and events to the point that when the big climaxes happen - no one cares. Finding that sweet spot is essential. Unfortunately for Discovery's 'Harley and the Davidsons' starring Michiel Huisman, Bug Hall, and Robert Aramayo, the miniseries isn't nearly dramatic enough or played with enough intensity to warrant its four-hour run time.
As automobiles become more and more popular, the motorized bicycle is the grand new idea that has mechanics and inventors clambering. Brothers Walter and Arthur Davidson (Michiel Huisman and Bug Hall respectively) along with their close friend Bill Harley (Robert Aramayo) get their wheels rolling by founding their company in the backyard shed. Affixing motors to standard bicycles, the trio of budding mechanical engineers get a flavor for the speed and freedom that a motorized bicycle provides the rider. As they develop their brand and bikes, the brothers and their close friend will endure fatal races, the ravages of the Great Depression, and through it all, they will create the iconic brand Harley-Davidson.
I love historical drama mini-series and maxi-series. Some events, some historical personas are just too big for a single two-hour film to contain. Tom Hooper's 'John Adams' and Kevin Reynolds' 'Hatfields & McCoys' are two prime examples of television event series that are long enough to tell the story without overstaying their welcome. 'Harley and the Davidsons,' on the other hand, struggles to justify its runtime, as well as its very presence. It's not long enough to give specific moments the dramatic heft and justification they need, and yet at the same time, the series is too long to hold interest.
Series Directors Ciaran Donnelly and Stephen Kay do their best to manage the material and keep it moving, but events that seem bigger and more important, like a fatal motorcycle race, for example, are dramatically undercooked. Even when Harley and the Davidson brothers are hit by the Great Depression and struggle to keep their company afloat, let alone sell a motorcycle, are shortchanged. Instead, we get a number of redundant petty arguments, character betrayals for the sake of having a character betrayal, and any number of other banal anti-climatic drama beats and fail to advance the plot.
This isn't to say that 'Harley and the Davidsons' is unwatchable. The series is well staged, with impeccable production values, and a cast that is giving it their all. As much as I wish more attention had been paid to the bigger events to make those moments resonate more, I do have to sit back and appreciate the effort put in by the cast. Michiel Huisman as Walter, Bug Hall as Arthur, and Rober Aramayo as Bill Harley absolutely kill it here. If this was a series up for Oscar consideration, each of them are going of for the gold. They're not merely reciting their lines but appear to have put in a genuine effort to get the character traits and mannerisms of their historical counterparts down pat. They're great to watch, but their efforts are ultimately undercut by an overcooked script.
As principal writer, Nick Schenk may have bit off more than he could chew. Along with co-writer Evan Wright, Schenk seems to struggle to find the mini-series' rhythm. Events build up and then have a tendency for a prolonged stuttering stop as if the moment the audience is seeing seems like it should be important but then it's ultimately revealed to be a non-issue scene that doesn't do anything. Just filler. My take away on how to have made this show work would have been to drop the vignette structure. A narrower, more linear story over a shorter span of time would have been more exciting in my eyes. Take the first episode that builds from the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle being built and ends with a tragic motorcycle race. That alone would have been enough material for a single two-hour film. Or if they'd picked up the story in the Depression as the Harley-Davidson brand attempts to survive and come back after that tragedy would have been something to see. At the end of the day I found 'Harley and the Davidsons' to be diverting but not fully engrossing entertainment. It's not a terrible show nor is it the triumph of the American spirit story that it sets out to be.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Harley and the Davidson's arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate in a four-disc Blu-ray and DVD set. Episodes One and Two are pressed onto their own BD50 disc while Episode Three is given its own BD50 disc along with the available Bonus Features. The two Blu-ray discs and two DVDs are packaged in a four-disc sturdy Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. Also included is a Digital HD voucher slip. The first disc loads to trailers for other upcoming releases from Lionsgate before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
While the show may not live up dramatically, nothing can be taken away from the incredible production design work on display. Presented in 1.78:1 1080p, this Blu-ray is simply gorgeous to look at. Detail levels are exquisite allowing the audience to soak in everything on screen. Facial features, makeup work, set design, costuming, the workshop the brothers design their bike, every little details comes through with a crisp and lifelike clarity. Colors are bright and vibrant with a warm yellowish tone, but there is plenty of primary presence allowing for rich and lifelike skin tones and hues to come through. During the Depression scenes the show takes on an appropriate gloomy cool appearance, but it works in the context of the scenes in question. Black levels are strong throughout and provide a nice sense of depth and dimension. The only fault I can see is some occasional noise creeping in from time to time. It's sporadic and not always noticeable, but it is there and during some sequences it can get a little distracting. Not altogether flawless, but this transfer is still a beauty.
I guess when you do enough reviews you start to take audio quality for granted. When you see enough modern movie and television series given a default English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix you just start to assume every new show is given that treatment. Oddly enough, 'Harley and the Davidsons' isn't given that basic surround treatment one would expect. At first I thought my sound system decided this was the disc it would take a dump on, but in fact, it's just that this show was given a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. Yeah, you read that right. A show about motorcycles featuring some incredible racing sequences and rising moments isn't even given a surround track. To make matters even worse, the artwork indicates that this should be presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0, which it clearly isn't. About the best thing I can say for it is that dialogue comes through clearly so you'll at least understand what is being said. The action moments sound okay, but they're not really eventful, the audio doesn't pull you in as you'd naturally hope that it would considering what you're watching. I guess to give it some praise, you can hear what's happening, but it's an unimpressive mix, to say the least.
Biketacular: (HD 40:37) This is a fun if more than a little biased countdown of the best motorcycles ever made. Spoiler Alert: it's not Kawasaki. If you love motorcycles, it's a pretty cool little bonus.
The Making of 'Harley and the Davidsons': (HD 6:44) This is an unfortunately entirely too brief EPK bonus feature that covers the basic cast and crew redundant interview material. Some more behind the scenes, production design stuff would have been interesting considering how great the show looks.
'Harley and the Davidsons' is a fine example of what could have been. There is a great amount of potential given the subject matter, but the show's sprint through history rather than focusing on a singular event makes it feel a bit lifeless and padded out. Lionsgate brings the series to Blu-ray with an exceptional video transfer, however, the audio and bonus features departments leave a lot to be desired. If you're a history fan I would suggest finding a book about the early days of Harley-Davidson. If you already know the story and are just up for some dramatic reenactments, this show suffices. I'm calling this one as worth a look. It's not an amazing show, but it has its moments.