Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
I was a teenager through most of the seventies, and I spent a fair amount of time in Santa Monica, but I had no idea that a revolution was going on there. While I was catching as many local bands as I could, and camping out at revival theatres that showed stuff by Welles and Godard, there was a whole other scene happening that eventually would change the world. I missed it completely. I’d never even ridden a skateboard.
Dogtown and Z-Boys doesn’t just document a sport. It captures a cultural shift. Using footage from the seventies along with an explosive collage of music from the time, the film shows how a rowdy band of kids living in an urban wasteland ended up becoming heroes to a generation. Skateboarding became a vehicle that would carry art, style and attitude to kids all over the world. Dogtown and Z-Boys is an exhilarating look back at how it all happened.
This movie has incredible energy. While it uses the standard talking head format for the interviews that tell the movement’s story, the footage from the past gives us a swirling, kaleidoscopic view of the seventies. If you’ve seen video of skateboarders doing their stuff, you know movement is everything, and I’m not just talking about the kids riding the boards. The camera leaps, jerks, swoops, trying to capture whatever’s happening. The images careen across the screen, sometimes flashing past so quickly it’s hard to say exactly what we’ve seen. The filmmakers splice it all together in inventive and expressive ways, capturing the energy of a movement that was all about movement. They also do an excellent job of using the present day interviews to provide context without slowing the film down or turning it into a lecture.
The film begins by giving us a sketch of the surfing scene in Santa Monica, Venice and Ocean Park back in the early seventies. The area had gone from oceanside suburb to urban wasteland in the space of about a decade. The guys riding the waves in that part of town had an aggressive style and were openly hostile to outsiders. Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk opened up a surf shop where young surfers would gather to work and hang out. But somewhere along the way these kids turned from surfing to skateboarding, and the rowdy, crazy energy they’d shown riding the waves got channeled into their moves on concrete. Ho, Engblom and Stecyk acted as godfathers and midwives to the movement, creating the Zephyr Team, which was the tightly bound and tightly wound unit that was soon shaking up the skateboarding world.
While the film may appear chaotic, it’s actually very carefully constructed to give us not just the stories of the individuals or the history of the team, but also to give us the necessary context to understand what was actually going down. The film deftly weaves together observations about society, technology, commerce and culture to give us a well-rounded picture of the time and the place these kids grew up in, and to explain why their brash style connected with teens all across the country.
The one gripe I have with Dogtown and Z-Boys is that the makers don’t fully acknowledge their involvement in creating the story they’re telling. Sure, if you look at the credits you’ll see that it was written and directed by Craig Stecyk and Stacy Peralta. And in watching the movie you’ll make the connection that Stecyk’s work for Skateboard magazine garnered a lot of attention for the Z-Boys, while Peralta was one of the sport’s first stars. These two played a huge role not just in creating the initial scene, but in publicizing it and shaping the perception of it. I’m not bothered by the fact that they’re writing and directing the movie. Certainly they’re well qualified to tell the story, and as a piece of filmmaking Dogtown and Z-Boys is outstanding. But if you set out to make skateboarding a phenomenon, and then you make a documentary that shows how skateboarding became a phenomenon, you really have to acknowledge your dual role as subject and storyteller. Not just by putting your name on the credits, but by allowing that to be part of the fabric of the film. While I don’t distrust Peralta and Stecyk, I don’t think they’re being completely honest. In other words, I have no problem with them giving me a subjective account of what went down. I just want them to acknowledge that it is a subjective account.
Aside from that, I totally love this movie. These guys are smart and funny, and they have some great stories to tell. The footage from the seventies takes me back to the days when LA seemed like a vast, decaying paradise that you could wander through forever. And the score, featuring Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Pretenders and many others, matches the searing energy of the images.
Dogtown and Z-Boys is a joy to watch.