The exciting documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) showed us the origin, rise and dissolution of the Zephyr Skating Team. Stacy Peralta was a participant in that scene, the director of the documentary, and now the scriptwriter of his own life story in Lords of Dogtown.
In a milieu that seems notable for its high degree of decadence and its casual sexism, Peralta (played by John Robinson) portrays himself as the blonde, loyal innocent, always slightly shocked at the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll shenanigans going on around him.
Lords of Dogtown reveals the pitfalls of the biopic form. In the transition from documentary to fiction, some facts, surprisingly, lose their charge – such as these Lords surfing recklessly into the pylons of an old amusement park in the days before they discovered skating; or the breakthroughs they achieved in their skating technique while 'carving' empty swimming pools.
And, although the film prides itself on dramatising the personal tales of the skaters which the doco could only allude to, these tales (of family discord and romantic strife) seem mostly banal, disconnected from the central success story.
Dogtown and Z-Boys risked overstating its case whenever it insisted on the subcultural style associated with the skaters, and its wider significance as a punk-style gesture of social resistance. Lords of Dogtown goes in the opposite direction altogether: there is no hint of subcultural politics here, only an endless parade of good times, bad times and cool skating moves (well photographed by Elliot Davis).
Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, 2003) places herself in the contemporary tradition of American energy realism that includes filmmakers David Fincher and Larry Clark. Everything is set to a high adrenaline level, from the ceaselessly mobile, hand-held camerawork (complete with those irritating tiny-nervy zooms-in borrowed from glossy television drama) to the relentless soundtrack barrage of '70s rock tracks. What Hardwicke fails to find within this style is any telling nuance, or a breathing space that would allow reflection.
Not that there is terribly much to reflect on here. Lords of Dogtown streamlines the true story of these kids into a recognisable Hollywood template. There's the lowly Mexican (Victor Rasuk as Tony Alva) who makes good, the screw-up (Emile Hirsch as Jay) who gets hooked on drugs, and Peralta who (sort of) sells out to corporate America. There's Rebecca De Mornay, joining Kim Basinger and Theresa Russell in the ranks of moviedom's slutty, trailer-trash mothers. There's the gregarious father-figure, Skip (Heath Ledger doing a strange voice), left behind by his pupils in their rush to fame. In the drive to simplify events, the film edits out the single girl who was part of the original team.
Even the ultimate reunion of the boys – a very emotional part of the documentary – suddenly looks very Big Wednesday (1978) in this scrubbed-up context.
© Adrian Martin August 2005