Hennessy’s Latest Opus Celebrates a Forgotten Cycling Legend in This Dark, Inspiring Film

The brand rolls out its most integrated campaign to date

Step inside Hennessy's latest work, honoring cycling legend Marshall "Major" Taylor. Droga5
Headshot of Katie Richards

Marshall “Major” Taylor was one of the most renowned track cyclists of his time—and arguably one of the most celebrated athletes in history. By 1901, he was considered the greatest athlete in the world and was the first African American world champion in any sport. But somehow, history forgot Taylor over the years … until now.

Hennessy is celebrating Taylor in its latest Wild Rabbit campaign, created in partnership with agency Droga5. Over the years, the body of work has featured celebrities and forgotten heroes alike, all of whom embody the brand’s “Never stop. Never settle” mantra. Examples of past iterations of the campaign have focused on father/son explorer duo Auguste and Jacques Piccard and rapper Nas (who makes an appearance in this latest campaign).

Giles Woodyer, SVP Hennessy at Moet Hennessy USA, said that each of the individuals they’ve featured in the campaign “exudes a drive, a determination and an ongoing quest to break down barriers, an attitude aligned with our own brand philosophy.” He added that Taylor inspired the team for this iteration, adding: “In his own words, ‘I was a pioneer. And therefore, had to blaze my own trail.'”

The campaign includes a 90-second, 60-second and 30-second cut of the ad, as well as shorter 15-second spots.

Like past installments of the campaign, Taylor’s “Wild Rabbit” treatment is flawless and exciting—but with a slightly darker edge. The film starts with Taylor in a heated race against stiff competition, but that quickly morphs into a deep, dark vortex where it seems Taylor is up against his toughest adversary yet.

“Through the end of this dream sequence, before we come back to reality, it’s almost like the pinnacle of loneliness,” said Alexander Nowak, ecd, Droga5. “He’s balancing on this one wooden plank looking into a complete void, which is an interesting image and then seeing himself and seeing this guy in front of him and just realizing it himself. We tried to keep it simple, but at the same time, as usual, quite entertaining.”

Derek Cianfrance, of Blue Valentine and Place Beyond the Pines, directed the film, which the team shot in Ukraine. An unnamed professional cyclist stars as Taylor in the spot.

“The cyclist raced flat-out for four days straight in these awe-inspiring settings. He was so inspired that he raced from dawn to dusk to make certain that he did justice to Taylor’s story. That was a truly moving experience,” Woodyer said.

Droga5 and Hennessy tapped Nas to do a voiceover for the 60-, 30- and 15-second cuts. The artist starred in a spot entitled “The Ride” for the brand back in 2014 and has continued his relationship with Hennessy throughout the years. He also lent his voice to a 60- and 30-second cut of “The Piccards” work from 2016.

Outside of the incredible films, Hennessy found a few extra ways to honor Taylor and celebrate his achievements as part of the campaign. First, Hennessy will celebrate the life of Taylor through an ESPN documentary tribute to the cyclist. The documentary will feature commentary from BMX influencer Nigel Sylvester and road cyclist Ayesha McGowan.

While Droga5 was not involved in the production of the documentary, Nowak noted that his creative team helped inform pieces of it because of the extensive research they conducted to create the film for Hennessy. Taylor’s great granddaughter, Karen Donovan, also provided insights—some of which even made it into the work.

In a teaser for the campaign below, Taylor approaches his bike, surrounded by fans and media, in a hoodie. Some may see that as a nod to boxers, but in reality, it was because Taylor typically got cold before a big race and needed something to keep him warm.

Hennessy also commissioned artist (and cycling enthusiast) Kadir Nelson to create “The Major,” a modern bronze statue in honor of the athlete. Additionally, designer Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss created a line of cycling apparel, “MMT 140 by Pyer Moss for Hennessy.” That line will roll out for a limited time in June at PyerMoss.com.

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@ktjrichards katie.richards@adweek.com Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.