The street punks who ramped up skateboarding
Unprecedented may be the only word to describe the way "Lords of Dogtown" springboards off its equally bracing 2001 documentary inspiration...
Special to The Seattle Times
Unprecedented may be the only word to describe the way "Lords of Dogtown" springboards off its equally bracing 2001 documentary inspiration, "Dogtown and Z-Boys."
Both films tell the story of surfers-turned-skateboarders whose street style helped revolutionalize the sport in Venice, Calif., circa 1975. Screenwriter Stacy Peralta, who co-wrote and directed "Dogtown and Z-Boys," also wrote the zingy, thinly fictionalized script about his youth for "Lords of Dogtown." With a healthy dose of directorial flair by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen"), the result is a series of kinetic vignettes that connect with wit and intelligence. It's a thrashing good time.
Peralta casts his young alter ego and the elite circle of skater kids he came up with against a giddy background of period detail. Hardwicke completes the trick using her background in art direction to candidly reflect the swagger of the times. Everything from the crackling selection of tunes on the soundtrack to the loose camerawork come together in a brilliant re-creation of place.
We're introduced to the characters a few at a time, starting under a crisp California dawn and Venice Beach's decaying Pacific Ocean Pier. A group of older surfers led by stoner entrepreneur Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger) taunt and tutor up-and-comers Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) and Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) as they weave on waves through deadly, crumbling pilings, showing off low moves that will soon make the leap from surf to street.
Engblom's Zephyr surf shop is a combination clubhouse and command center where there's always a party and where fantasies of fame, riches and doing nothing but skating and surfing all day take precedence over commerce. Ledger is a delight, sinking a set of Valley-dude buck teeth into the role of the dope-addled Peter Pan/drill sergeant who takes it as his duty to whip the kids flocking around him into a new legion of skateboard heroes.
Engblom's enthusiasm grows from the combination of newly discovered urethane wheels ("they're made from oil!") and the epiphany that they can ride the curved pavement of dried-up drainage ditches the same way a finely waxed board glides through a wave. It was the movement of the skateboard from its slow, tabletop origins to the vertical realm that made the Zephyr team and eventually brought global fame to Stacy, Jay and Tony.
One of the movie's best sequences is the discovery that hundreds of backyard pools, emptied because of a drought, created perfect dry waves to perfect new techniques. The dazzling camerawork and editing reach a pinnacle in the pool scenes where wheels-eye views swoosh around concrete bowls, then move through zany chase scenes as the kids stay one step ahead of angry cops and homeowners.
The only place "Lords of Dogtown" falters is in a third-act dance with melodrama. The young, tough Jay self-destructs amid the glamour; Tony gets a rock-star ego; Skip becomes a bitter self-parody as the world he once commanded slips out of his wasted grasp. But the Hallmark-Hall-of-Fame elements are far outweighed by the spirit and soul of another time when excitement about something new had deep meaning.
Ted Fry: email@example.com