Editor’s Pick – Dogtown & The Z Boys (2001)

Director: Stacy Peralta | Runtime: 1h 31mins | Documentary, Sport

Created by ‘The Z Boys’ themselves, this documentary follows the story of how young teens in a run down area on the Californian coast took their skills surfboarding to resurrect the 1960’s trend of ‘sidewalk surfing’ and turned into the now wildly popular skateboarding culture.

The name ‘Z Boys’ comes as a simplified version of the Zephyr Competition Team, originally a surfing group they were the named after a local surfing shop that sponsored them, created by Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom, alongside photojournalist Craig Stecyk. Many of the boys were as young as 14, and through the interviews with almost all the original team we discover the lack of a future that lay ahead of them.

Dogtown – more commonly known as Santa Monica – was a neglected area, and even to the people who lived there the idea of surfing created connotations of drop out, wasted time and delinquent. As they say early on, the genesis of skateboarding comes from surfers who would use these smaller boards to imitate their wave riding on concrete, and as much of the surf would blow out by 10 or 11am, they had plenty of time to skate.

From the start you’re bombarded with hallmarks of 90’s skate aesthetic – even though much of the story is set in the 70’s everything suits the narrative, as it is the story of how we got the modern style of skating, most importantly the aerial aspect. The pacing is fast, almost chaotically so, but again this works well with the narrative.

All of the interviews with The Z Boys are shot in black and white and handheld, some almost at dutch angles, all this giving it the feeling of the homemade skate videos that popularised many of the more famous figures of the sport. Though it has this more do-it-yourself nature, Dogtown… by no means comes across as amateur, the lightning quick pace from the get go is handled with ease as you’re given information on the early history of Zephyr and the members themselves.

The film is directed by one of the most successful of the Z Boys, Stacy Peralta, not just in terms of actual competitive skating but his mark on the industry as well, creating his own skateboarding brand that turned into a team called the Bones Brigade, who further revolutionised the sport, and created the first skate video in the process.

With Peralta actually being one of the subjects in the film it could very easily have been an egotistically, self-centred mess purely as a way to glorify Peralta and his friends from his teen years – the result is far from it though. It’s a fascinating retrospective to a culturally important part of largely American youth history, using nostalgia as an excellent tool to replicate the mood and tone of the era the story comes from.

Like many other documentaries, there’s heavy use of still photography from the time, but it’s implemented with the same energy as the rest of the film.

The kinetic pacing is an excellent reflection of the voice of the youth the narrative focuses on, their rebellious nature and fast paced lives feed into the almost aggressively energetic editing and cinematography of the interviews. Like many other documentaries, there’s heavy use of still photography from the time, but it’s implemented with the same energy as the rest of the film, which could seem somewhat dated now but actually feels more like an explosive time capsule.

The use of archival footage is spliced in excellently, and as the subjects are the ones who filmed most of it there’s a huge back catalogue to use, and many of the earlier videos focus around one of the crew in specific – Jay Adams, whose story turns out to be one of the more interesting narrative threads despite his lack of notoriety.

A weirdly fascinating aspect is the sporadic inclusion of Sean Penn’s deadpan narration, mistakes in his reading included in the final cut. It all adds to the feel of the film being a product of the era it’s exploring, another way of emphasising the do-it-yourself attitude of the Z Boys, but in an entertaining and exhilarating way.

The importance of kids in their youth is a constant thread that lives in the very veins of Dogtown…, both the film and the real location. It’s these same young drop outs that took their pass time of messing around in slanted empty playgrounds to the dried up swimming pools and throwing themselves in the air, all being documented in the resurrected magazine Skateboarded by Zephyr co-founder Craig Stecyk. Because of Stecyk, the Z Boys found national acclaim and took the sport from downhill racing and freestyling on flat surfaces to halfpipes and million dollar sponsorships.

So much of the success of Dogtown & The Z Boys is down to the interest of the narrative itself, how such a popular sport came to be the industry it is today, the modest upbringings in a rundown area lead them to experiment in ever increasing ways. Because of the nature of the subject it does feel essential that it’s the Z Boys themselves that tell the story, their personalities giving the story as much character as they embody themselves. It definitely helps that the film is incredibly entertaining though.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Phil Wilson

I watch and make films.

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