Roller ball

Tony Alva models a rather impressive slouch on board for Dogtown and Z-Boys: Nice hair, dude!

Tony Alva models a rather impressive slouch on board for Dogtown and Z-Boys: Nice hair, dude!

Rated 4.0

Imagine teen surf rats standing on the roofs of cars as they drove through the alleys of drought-ravaged 1970s Southern California, searching for neglected swimming pools they could turn into impromptu skateboard camps. Contemplate the sheer gall of these guerillas-on-a-mission who lugged pumps, drainage hoses and brooms into illegally accessed backyards, hoping to get in as well as out of their high-walled playgrounds before the cops came. The circus had come to town. Its banner was a bleeding madras of covert convergence and experimentation that evolved into a pop culture phenomenon.

Stacy Peralta was one of these young punk lions who adapted surf aesthetics (low-slung stance, hands often touching the ground) and helped midwife the rebirth of skateboarding after its meteoric rise and demise in the 1960s. His documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys covers several milestones in skateboarding history (such as the advent of polyurethane wheels and airborne acrobatics). It also paints a vivid portrait of a place, time and tribal gathering where environment, attitude, innovation, athleticism and emphasis on style spawned an accidental revolution of sorts.

Dogtown (“where the debris meets the sea”) refers to the beachfront corridor that stretches south from Santa Monica to Venice to Ocean Park. Route 66 terminated there. Pacific Ocean Park (know as P.O.P. to the locals) flourished in the mid-1960s as a sort of Coney Island West before bellying up in 1967. That area became a seaside slum with an unofficial but prevalent “screw you” slogan. It was home to gangs, freaks, graffiti artists, hot-rodders, low-riders and aggressively territorial surfers who coexisted in symbiotic disharmony. “It was dirty. It was filthy. It was paradise.”

Z-Boys refers to the 11 male and 1 female skaters on the Zephyr Skate Team created and sponsored by Zephyr Production Surf Shop co-owners Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk. Most of the kids were from broken homes and the Dogtown surf shop was their clubhouse. These kids took to their skateboards when the surf was down. Ho and Engblom trained them. Photojournalist Stecyk chronicled their exploits. The mainstream skate world sucked in its collective breath when the blatantly rebel group and their fluid, improvisational style turned the 1975 Bahne-Cadillac Skateboard Championship (known as the Del Mar Nationals) into an infamous coming-out party.

Peralta’s film combines stills, home movies, video footage and recent interviews to bring the evolution of both Dogtown and the Z-Boys to life. It is nostalgic, panoramic and self-reverential. I wanted to be fed more information about the interplay between the lone female of the group and her alpha male counterparts. I wanted to learn more about skateboarding in general and hear less horn blowing (it felt like both Jay Adams and Tony Alva were trumpeted as the best-ever skateboarders) and maybe a little more philosophical fire from Sean Penn’s narration.

Paul Crowder’s editing is imaginative (the stills pulsate and jitterbug at times) and complementary to the kinetic energy of the subject at hand. The music, including Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top, Herb Alpert, Neil Young, The Pretenders, Thin Lizzy, and Aerosmith, feels based more on specific mood than soundtrack sales. The film also excellently explains how skateboarding became more than just another kiddie fad like the hula-hoop. The comparative shots of such surfers as legendary Larry Burtelman being emulated on skateboards are also a plus.

One element that undercuts Peralta’s film is that it follows too well one of its own comments: “Going big only works as long as you look good doing it.” The film could have used less backslapping and more grit. The anecdote of the Z-Boys being befriended by a kid dying of cancer (he gets his dad to drain the family pool and let the Boys cut loose) plays like a Little Rascal episode with a tragic edge. The film also mentions that Adams, whose right eye is framed by a scar, made art of disaster on his skateboard, but a disaster of his personal professional life. It’s those moments that turn the film’s style into substance. Try squeezing that from just a skateboard.