In my own teens, basketball was the central event of life, played on rough asphalt courts when necessary, in unheated gyms so cold we could see our breath, and in un-air-conditioned gyms until the hardwood floors were slicked with sweat. Basketball was the reason we got up in the morning, the dreams we carried with us to bed at night. Stacy Peralta's documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys tells the story of kids with a similar obsession, and with it the story of a sport's invention. This is a Gen-X story, and as such one that Boomers like me may approach in an advanced stage of ignorance.
With the Beach Boys harmonizing about "sidewalk surfing," skateboarding boomed and busted in the mid-1960s, a fad come and gone like the hula hoop before it. Then in the early '70s, clay and steel skate wheels were replaced with polyurethane, and the possibilities for roller sporting were instantly transformed. Kids on skateboards were suddenly whizzing down sidewalks everywhere. I witnessed the nuisance often enough, but I was unaware of the attendant skateboarding sports phenomenon. I knew nothing whatsoever that a extraordinary group of young athletes was in the process of inventing an urban competition that can be seen to combine figure skating and acrobatics in its demand for agility, daring and grace.
Drawing on Craig Stecyk's series of articles in Skateboarder magazine and extensively employing home movies shot by Stecyk and Glen E. Friedman in the mid-70s, Dogtown and Z-Boys details the remarkable exploits of a group of surfer punks who took an almost afterthought recreation and turned it into a grunge art form. Along a scruffy section of California coast that stretched from south Santa Monica through Venice and Ocean Park, tough teens rode the waves when the surf was up and cruised the pavement on their skateboards when it was not. In between, they hung out at Zephyr Surf Shop where partners Stecyk, Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom, all men in their late 20s and early 30s, sold surf boards and other surfing equipment and eventually agreed to sponsor the teens as the Zephyr Skateboarding Team. There begins the stuff of skating legend.
The Z-Boys were proudly bad from the outset. Now in their 40s, they still boast of how they dominated their stretch of beach, fighting with anyone who dared try to surf it without their permission. But their passage to figures of sports history is triggered by an absence of water, the great California drought of the mid-70s. Water became so precious that people couldn't fill their swimming pools. Enter the Z-Boys, fresh from skating in school yards and slaloming steep hills. The Z-Boys skated down into the pools and up on the sides, finally breaking free from the rim, reaching exultantly for the sun of athletic glory.
The sport now contested on half-pipe courts had yet to be invented, but it had already produced its first masters. We meet 11 of them in this film, 10 boys and one girl, Peggy Oki. Three of the boys emerge as particularly important. Jay Adams is acknowledged as the most gifted, and Tony Alva is recognized as the most accomplished. The third, unfortunately, is director Peralta. Peralta was certainly a successful and talented skateboarder, but his hand on the tiller of this picture has robbed it of needed distance and balance.
The vintage film footage testifies convincingly to the Z-Boys' astonishing athleticism. But skating was a '70s rage nationwide, and though the Californians dominated their emerging sport, competitors from elsewhere were also successful. Who were they, and how did they learn to compete? At its best this film documents a fascinating cultural phenomenon, but by squeezing its focus so narrowly on one group of kids, it tells us less than it ought about the evolution of their sport. Moreover, the picture tells us significantly less than it might about the kids themselves. What did their parents think of their skateboarding? How were they viewed by their teachers and their school peers? In a variety of ways, what kind of lives did they lead apart from surfing and skating? How much were they affected by the drug culture of the era? Were the Zephyr shop adults supplying the youngsters with drugs? And most vexingly, what was the nature of their relationships with the three adult men at the surf store?
Reference is made to a back room, and there's an ever so fleeting hint of sex. What was that all about? Peralta and the Z-Boys stand ever ready to attest to their own skating supremacy, but in the absence of other witnesses, their bragging is ultimately less convincing than perhaps it ought to be.
In sum, Dogtown and Z-Boys is informative and thoroughly watchable, likable in a way some of its characters aren't. But the picture raises at least as many questions as it answers, and in that way never gets all its wheels out of the pool.
- Stacy Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys breezes along so fast it misses some key points in its chronicling of the skateboarding phenomenon of the 1970s.