Watch out, because the kindred teens of Dogtown have grown up and made a film that relentlessly marks their territory, and deservedly so, all over the trunk of skateboarding’s family tree.
Dogtown and Z-Boys appeared at the recently completed Miami Film Festival to a packed premiere at South Beach’s Colony Theatre and a rowdy sold-out showing at the Beach’s Regal Cinema, where it found considerable buzz and warm praise from students and locals.
Raging with nostalgia, colorful modern urgency and a sacred rock and punk soundtrack, the documentary traces the exploits of twelve misfits on the Zephyr skateboard team, a band of kids who changed the face of skateboarding forever by injecting the same fierce street mentality that they picked up in their home of Dogtown.
Dogtown was a former California wasteland in the 1970s located between Venice and Santa Monica. It was the type of place where gangs set their own dead end roads, the homeless took shelter under piers, and all types of food fought in the air for your appetite. What made the place unique, however, was a huge amusement park that had gone financially bust in 1967, leaving wealthy businessmen to quickly scatter elsewhere, while the park’s fate was left at the mercy of the ocean.
The beginning of the film features footage of surfers, many of whom would later become Z-boys, riding on a death wish as they dodge rusted, giant roller coaster rails both above and beneath the water’s surface. Witnessing this in the theater is truly observing the uncut, triple X version of “X-treme” sports’ ancestor in its purest form. The absence of sponsors hanging from every imaginable place, there is gratefully no capitalism to be seen. To the lower class kids pulling off this stuff, all they had was the elite fix and satisfaction from doing it, a sense of belonging and gutsy pride that was kept forever. During these scenes, even actor Sean Penn, who narrates the film, lies low and lets the stunning footage speak for its self.
According to Z-boy testimonials, surfers from outside of the area were not allowed to surf in Dogtown and often faced being hit with rocks, buckets of sand or anything else that was at the disposal of the territorial locals.
“The funniest thing I saw was someone paddle out in the water with the guy’s carburetor on top of his surfboard and go: ‘Hey does this belong to you?’ and drop it in the water,” said Z-Boy Jim Muir.
Skateboarding took its first hold on the youth of the nation in the 1950s. But it was more like a corny Frisbee revolution than something that actually took balls and skill to pursue. When skateboarding faced a bleak extinction in the 1960s, the Z-boys stuck with it and ended up salvaging a debatable sport/art form/lifestyle for the 20 million kids who currently skate around the globe.
“If you wanted a skateboard back then, you had to go to a thrift store, buy a pair of roller skates with clay wheels, cut ’em in half, then go out in your garage and find an old drawer out of a dresser…carve it into a surfboard shape, screw on the wheels and go,” said director and former Z-boy Stacy Peralta.
The invention of the polyurethane wheel in 1972 sets the flick off in full gear, as the Zephyr team uses the new wheel’s speed and versatility to imitate the moves of their favorite aggressive surfer, Larry Bertelman, on the black top playgrounds of Southern California.
Footage of the Z-boys and lone girl, Peggy Oki, riding smooth concrete waves in unison, wearing torn jeans with the wind possessing their soft blonde locks is both visually powerful and relaxing in its assaulting innocence. The film contains faux guerilla editing techniques as it switches back and forth from original 16mm footage to the colorfully stark photos of Glen E. Friedman, and then throws in candid humorous present day interviews with people from the era.
The climax of the film is the segment on Jay Adams. One of the youngest members of the Z-boys, Adams was also the most talented and craziest. When skateboarding blew up again in the 1970s, the Del Mar Nationals was organized in 1975 to showcase competition. While other skaters were still perfecting the kooky headstands and simplistic maneuvers of the 1950s, the Zephyr team came to the contest as a self- described “hockey team at a figure skating contest.” Decked out in navy blue T-shirts screen printed with a DIY Zephyr logo and matching navy blue Vans, the team made total jackasses out of every other crew that day. Mocking the uncreative flat surface that was reserved for competition, Adams pulls sharp curves in every direction with such intense force that it purposely takes his board off of the court’s edges. The scene is magnified with a blaring rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady as he flies totally off of the court and lands, leaving the audience to ponder what the hell it has just seen. With Adam’s performance, the team took first in the competition, and made every conservative judge and lame skate crew in attendance feel like their time had expired like spoiled milk.
Adams’ segment features commentary by the man himself. Now serving time in a Hawaii penitentiary for drug possession, Adam’s speaks on camera with a calm demeanor. Ye,t his dark focused eyes, tattooed neck, and husky voice tell you that the guy has lived through more than just hangovers- he is the member who never wanted to face the business end of skating and instead rebelled in every means for an escape. Neil Young’s Old Man strums in the background as a black and white snapshot of a young goofy faced Adams is blown up on the screen. The words Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you, are incredibly symbolic coming from the speakers. They seem to ask people who have never been willing to respect or understand skating to find a point of realization. This an art form that has rebellious roots, but also a genuine heart and purpose.
As they trespass and skate empty upper class swimming pools, with some inevitably becoming egotistical rock stars, the film poignantly sounds out that these are just kids finding out who they are, having fun and testing the levels of danger.
Stacy Peralta and other contributors of the film, now “old” themselves, are a reflection of skateboarding’s longevity. They are the first men to look back on what they were a part of, the first members of an elite counter culture that will hopefully always remain two steps outside of the mainstream, even when and if the mass population ever comes to accept it.