Skateboarding used to be ugly. It was dull and uninspired. It was considered a passing fascination. A group of roughneck surfers changed all that.
"Dogtown and Z-Boys" (IMDb listing) is a documentary about the birth of skateboarding. With the shaky-handed excitement of a first-time father, interviews intertwined with archival footage of Venice California's Zephyr Skate/Surf team show this newborn sport taking its first steps. It is an enthralling and glorious look back at when this now multi-million dollar industry was just a pair of broken rollerskates attached to a dresser drawer.
To the uninitiated, a documentary about skateboarding might seem intimidating and uninteresting. But filmmaker Stacy Peralta's ability to carve into the fluid beauty of his subject matter is to be applauded. It is pretentious and bawdy at times, but "Dogtown" never excludes the outsiders that the Zephyr team loathed in the '70s.
On the contrary, the film invites everyone to take a look at an underappreciated moment in history. Moving from the dilapidated Pacific Ocean Pier to a few fenced-off Los Angeles schools to abandoned swimming pools in posh California suburbs, "Dogtown and Z-boys" is a brilliant testament to evolution as well as revolution.
Seeing this rapid mutation on film is incredible. Zephyr Surf team was an elite group of surfers who were as mean as they were graceful. They were passionate about surfing and even more passionate about neighborhood unity. They had to be; there was limited space and time to surf. Their graffiti banners of "death to invaders," "locals only" and "dogtown" demanded respect from fellow surfers as well as curious outsiders. Still, when there wasn't enough time to surf, Z-boys found that they could practice surfing moves on skateboards. With invention and experimentation, skateboarding grew exponentially and with great beauty to the point where even mistakes seemed to have purpose.
The film itself is somewhat of an experiment as well. Peralta was a member of the Zephyr skate team, and he takes their inventive method with him behind the camera. With his rough editing and gritty narration, "Dogtown and Z-boys" captures the essence of the Zephyr crew. The soundtrack is an excellent accompaniment to the danger and risk, as well as the grace and agility of early skateboarding. At times, Peralta fades from surfing footage to skateboarding footage for an amazing effect. The interviews are raw, the cuts are often rough and even Sean Penn's priceless narration is flawed at times. These mistakes seem to have purpose as well.
To see this group of young kids give everything they had to the sport they loved is inspiring. To see where they came from and how little they had going for them is humbling. To see them at the forefront of a movement that would eventually become a worldwide phenomenon is something to behold.
There is a quote in the film that says skateboarders take what civilization has built and use it in a way the architects couldn't have anticipated. "Dogtown and Z-boys" is a glorious celebration of that inventive spirit.
Filmfodder Grade: A-