Our review of Dogtown And Z-Boys: Deluxe Edition, published September 27th, 2005, is also available.
"Just to be there standing on the deck was hard-core, because you were privy to something that you don't readily see anywhere else. If you were in the pool, standing in there, getting ready to take a run, you were even badder. But if you were an actual player, busting moves and pushing the limits of the session going on, you were straight out punk rock star. I mean big time."
"I was on summer vacation for about twenty years."
Dogtown and Z-Boys is an unapologetic valentine to the dozen scrappers from Southern California who gave birth to modern skating, directed by Z-Boy and skateboarding mogul Stacy Peralta, and narrated by film's Chairman of the Board himself, Fast Times At Ridgemont High's Spicoli (Sean Penn, sadly not in character, but solid nonetheless). Mixing amazing early footage, a thorough '70s soundtrack, and interviews with the grown-up Z-Boys reflecting on the scruffy monster they created, this is one of the most entertaining and endearing documentaries I've seen. It's on par with The Endless Summer for its ability to capture the good vibrations and relative innocence of beach culture in its golden era, a snapshot of a time when surfing and skateboarding were rebellious forms of self-expression for the youths of an area of Los Angeles known as Dogtown. In the course of staving off boredom, these kids captivated the world by awaking the dormant potential of four wheels, a board, and gravity.
Facts of the Case
In the mid 1970s, the skateboard was considered a novelty toy, a forgotten fad from the 1960s matched only by the hula-hoop for sheer uselessness. Originally meant to translate the surfing experience to pavement, skating's early moves were limited to stiff retreads of surfing's most pedestrian maneuvers. Things changed when the kids from Dogtown (the nickname of the coastal cluster of Ocean Park, Venice, and South Santa Monica) dusted off the sport to pass time between waves. They took the styles of their favorite '70s surfers to the retaining walls of local elementary schools, which were seemingly designed to be asphalt waves. By then, skateboarding was so over-with that boards couldn't be purchased new. The Dogtown kids usually went through boards so fast that their only option was to buy second hand roller-skates, saw off the bottoms, and bolt them to old drawers and wooden planks. Their interest was further spurned by the famous California drought, when the group took advantage of other people's empty pools to take their moves vertical. With this new approach, they became noticed enough to be selected for the Zephyr Surf Shop skateboarding team, a team which eventually brought skateboarding into the future. This is their story, and while it's occasionally high on itself, Dogtown and Z-Boys, like the skaters it pays tribute to, has the moves to back up its talk.
I grew up fascinated with skateboarding. Back in the dark ages (the mid-1980s), skateboarding was more Black Flag than Blink 182. The skaters immortalized in the pages of Thrasher magazine were filthy, cocky, and having more fun than I was. It was a self-contained culture of colorful characters, living fast and pushing each other's limits, not unlike the hot rod culture of the 1950s. While my own ability didn't progress beyond doing Ollie's on my street with my neighbor Jeff, and some glorious sessions on Suzy Fenton's brother's half pipe, I nevertheless identified with skateboarding culture. During this time I never saw it as underground per se, but part of its appeal was that it was crouched near the ground. Within a few short years, skateboarding had learned to walk upright. It became respectable, a way to belong, fashion—in other words, no fun (at least not in the way it had been). Watching Dogtown and Z-Boys, I realized that the only truly pure era of skating, where the possibilities were limitless and the only ambition was enjoyment, had drifted away long before I had ever heard of Tony Hawk (who Peralta discovered in the years following his own Dogtown heyday). While the athletic ability of today's skaters is stunning, and they have admirably taken the sport to exciting new places, this film successfully argues that there have never been skaters as aggressive, influential, or stylish as the original Zephyr crew. And certainly, no one had more fun.
Good documentaries rely almost entirely on quality archival footage and engaging interviews, and Dogtown and Z-Boys has both in abundance. It succeeds in bringing the audience into the Z-Boys' exclusive scene through home movies of the earliest Dogtown sessions, as well as photographer (and Dogtown and Z-Boys production designer) Craig Stecyk's Life magazine-inspired images of the young bucks in action. All of the Z-Boys (except one, who the film ominously informs us was "last seen in Mexico") are on hand to share their memories. Worth noting is that one of Z-Boys is a girl, though the film makes no distinction between her and the rest of the crew. In Dogtown, people proved themselves on their boards, and gender, race, and class were of little concern.
It's truly remarkable to see footage of these kids feeling out what a skateboard can do, their wiry frames wobbling on tiny, rickety boards, nary a helmet or pad in sight. The riders piggyback on the other's moves, pushing each other's styles in new directions in pursuit of the ultimate run. It is this hunger to try something no one's ever done before that comes across most vividly in the film. Witness a prepubescent Jay Adams dragging his hands along the pavement the way surfers drag their hands in the surf, his long sun-bleached hair draped over a sneer, inventing maneuvers on the fly, barefoot, and try not to smile at his primal drive. Or Tony Alva, a young teen sporting a thin mustache and wild curly hair, hitting the lip of an emptied pool just to see if it could be done. The film portrays these early forays with a pure joy that's inspiring to experience.
As Jimi Hendrix blared on the soundtrack, I couldn't help but see the parallel between the Zephyrs and the way Hendrix burst onto the scene with a style and attitude on the guitar like no one had ever conceived, shedding new light on how a simple piece of wood could be manipulated to move the user and his audience. If necessity is the mother of invention, both Hendrix and the Z-Boys showed that restlessness is the mother of reinvention. Watching the crew pull moves that might be considered elementary now is more exciting than ten X-Games, because it was unchartered territory at the time. (What's more impressive: the Blue Angels doing choreographed moves with the latest technology, or the Wright brothers putting the last bolt on and going for a spin?) They broke new ground for fun, and it's a boon that someone had the presence of mind to capture it all on film.
One of the highlights is the section at the Del Mar Nationals, where the contrast between the raucous Zephyr's and the rest of the buttoned-down skating community of the time is most apparent. It was the first contest of its kind in a decade, and it is considered a landmark event in the annals of skateboarding history for providing the Zephyrs their first opportunity to show their "debris-meets-the sea"-inspired stylings to the world. The group photo from the contest personifies their skating approach, where the uniqueness of the individual members is matched only by the unified vibe of domination they put out. It was the kind of group where everyone could be a leader at any given time, depending on who made the last burly move.
Peralta, the man behind the Powell Peralta skateboard company and countless skating videos over the years, uses restraint when depicting his own part of the Dogtown experience, and the film benefits greatly from his deft direction and serendipitous acquisition of rare footage. His interviews with the latter-day Z-Boys are just as fun as you would hope, and though they've largely gone their separate ways, all of them have fond memories of their days together in Dogtown. These exchanges give insight into what drove these kids to greatness, and most of the participants have retained that vitality.
The segments featuring Jay Adams were my personal favorites. He is referred to as "the Original," and indeed he probably best personified the group's aspirations for radicality. In Peralta's words, "When God created skateboarding, he said 'Let there be Jay Adams.'" Adams was the original template from which all other skaters were derived, and it's a kick to watch the Alpha at work. He was reckless, innovative, and captivating to watch, all at just thirteen years old. His love for it was so pure that in the years that followed, he eschewed the fame and money of the pro skating boom that he helped to pioneer. When the film shows us where Adams is at now, it's a sobering reminder of how living for the moment can catch up with you in the long run, but it only makes the footage of his youthful abandon that much more thrilling.
The picture quality varies between the video and film segments, but absolutely all of it is pleasing to look at. The skating footage itself is surprisingly clean of artifacts, and the colors are vibrant. It's presented in full screen, which is its original ratio. Although this gives it more of a home video style than a film style, it's appropriate for the subject. The sound is Dolby 5.0, best during the music sections. The soundtrack is excellent, ranging from Hendrix's "Ezy Rider" to Pink Floyd's "Us and Them," always well-suited to the action onscreen.
The disc has a nice set of extras to complete the Dogtown experience. The commentary with Peralta and his editor is an interesting companion to the movie, but not as informative as I'd hoped. There's also an alternate ending of the movie featuring Alva, still carving pools in the 21st century. The best feature is a branching option that can be activated while watching the movie, where you can see more footage from the various sessions. Seeing their unedited runs elicits even more respect for the Z-Boys, and my only complaint is that I wanted to see every frame available (poke around the disc for a little extra footage). There's even a killer sticker of the old Dogtown logo inside, which I will put on my car as soon as I'm not afraid of getting beaten up by skaters.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The aforementioned boastful tone could easily put off a nonbeliever, but to get hung up on that is to miss the point. It was this unabashed confidence that put the Z-Boys on the map in the first place, and it will be annoying only to Val's. (I won't ever do that again.)
Dogtown and Z-Boys is a testament to the power and vitality of youth. With no money, no prospects, and no respect for anything but each other, these dozen kids single-handedly revolutionized and legitimized what's become an American institution.
Dogtown and Z-Boys is charged with contempt of court and destruction of public property. However, the court is willing to drop the charges if the defendants can show your honor how to not look like an uncoordinated ass on a board.
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