Unless you are a die-hard aficionado of professional bodybuilding, then you probably never heard of Lee Priest. However, it is possible that you’ve seen him in bookstores or supermarkets: photographs of his extraordinary physique have graced scores of fitness magazine covers for over a decade. “Lee Priest: The Blonde Myth” is an entertaining and often charming hour-long documentary focusing on this athlete through his intensive training leading up the prestigious Mr. Olympia competition.
Born in Australia in 1972, Priest first gained international attention by winning back-to-back Mr. Australia competitions while still a teenager. These victories created a strange controversy in the Down Under bodybuilding circles, given to Priest’s youthful besting of older competition, and eventually he headed to America in search of bigger and better competitions.
On stage, Priest stands out from his rivals primarily due to his size…or lack thereof. At 5’4″, he is perhaps the shortest professional bodybuilder competing in the heavyweight level. Yet his superhero-inspired appearance (a competition weight of 225 lbs. and arms which nearly measure 21 inches) help cut down the larger guys.
“Lee Priest: The Blonde Myth” is actually a contradictory title. While the “Blonde Myth” tag has been affixed to him by fans, Priest himself does not labor under the pretension of being a living legend. In fact, his laconic narration and easy-going on-screen persona are so comfortably laid back that it makes the viewer rueful that more professional athletes cannot be as good-humored and pleasant as him. In recounting controversies which resulted in a drop in a major contest finish and a later suspension from competition, Priest’s raconteur skills are free of braggadocio or bitterness…he faces problems with a calm “those-things-happen” attitude which is a jolt of fresh air in a time when too many people have axes to grind.
Priest mercifully spares the camera any attempts at iron-pumping show-off spectacles and shares the drudgery of his weight training in joyful spirits. Indeed, when instructed to take off a heavy sweatshirt to display his celebrated torso, he sighs ruefully and gently complains: “It’s so cold!” He later comments on the restrictions within his training diet and how he misses favorite foods. It would seem that looking like a superhero also requires super-duper discipline which few people can carry.
Viewers who are not knowledgeable on bodybuilding may get lost when “Lee Priest: The Blonde Myth” devotes lengthy sections of its soundtrack to Priest’s running commentary on the stars of his sport and his views on its governing committee, the International Federation of Bodybuilding. However, there are more than enough surprises, most notably the sequence when Priest literally paints a tan on himself before going into competition. It would seem bodybuilding judges prefer competitors with excessive tans and seeing the fair-skinned Priest glide a brush across himself to get darker by a half-dozen hues is both startling and amusing.
Other surprises include an unscheduled gym encounter with a somewhat haggard-looking Jean-Claude Van Damme. Rather than ham it up for the camera, Priest keeps their conversation low-keyed and nearly inaudible…clearly a fine sign of respect for his movie star friend. There is also a brief visit to Priest’s wide collection of Superman memorabilia, which he gleefully predicts will be worth something by the time he is 80 (“and I won’t be able to enjoy the money!” he adds with a laugh). Priest also happily knocks the need for putting on a good scene for the camera in a lunch break by openly noting he is about to consume a steak-and-eggs meal because it photographs better than his preferred choice of a burger and fries.
Gracefully conceived and beautifully photographed by filmmaker Mitsuru Okabe, “Lee Priest: The Blonde Myth” is a winning tribute to an athlete who clearly deserves to known by another title: a swell guy.