CCS Skateboards
Sony Classic/Dogtown

em Film review

Dogtown And Z-Boys is a feature length documentary on the Sony Classics label. Narrated by Sean Penn this film is mostly a cinematic version of the work by writer and photographer, CR Stecyk on the ‘Dogtown’ area of LA and Zephyr team skateboarders.

Although at first appearing to be a documentary about the origins of modern skateboarding culture and style, there are really two films at work here. The first, as mentioned, is a skateboarding documentary, not only about how skateboarding really started, but about this rundown area of LA called ‘Dogtown’.

This incorporated the area around Venice Beach and we are shown that it was once a thriving, family area full of funfair rides and amusement parks. But things slipped in the 60s and the place became nothing but a graveyard to the many rides and attractions that once brought so many to visit the area. The images that are shown of this degradation are haunting to say the least, looking like the last place anyone would want to visit for a fun family day out.

Despite being a rundown wasteland, the surfing culture there still thrived, although it was nothing like it is today, and surfers back then were seen as drop-outs. But it’s here that we see the origin of the Z-Boys, with the introduction of a small shop stared by a couple of local surfers, including Jeff Ho, who designed and built their own surfboards to stand out against the manufactured boards of the time.

You can see a real gang culture starting to emerge at this point, not only through the choice of surfboard decorations in Ho’s designs – being influenced by the gang graffiti around the Dogtown area – but also in the striking footage of the surfers as they weave in and out of an old broken down pier in one particular rundown area of the beach – its edge of the seat stuff as you know (and are told through the interspersed interviews) one wrong move or slip would have resulted in serious injury if not death.

"Surfing was all they wanted to do each and every day, it was their passion, which is why they took to skateboarding so easily."

But this area was ‘kept local’ by the kids that surfed there, with graffiti warning visiting surfers away, and tales of throwing lumps of concrete down on those foolish enough to intrude on their ‘turf’. However, despite the gang culture, they were excellent surfers nonetheless, and this inspired that small surfing shop to form the Zephyr surfing team.

From here the film starts to focus on the skateboarding element, which is really what this film is about. Skateboarding was a natural extension of surfing, and it shows as members of the Zephyr surfing team take to skateboarding for when the tide was out with relative ease, but trying to emulate their surfing heroes on land instead of how skateboarding is seen today. Surfing was all they wanted to do each and every day, it was their passion, which is why they took to skateboarding so easily.

Through their unorthodox style and attitude, the newly formed Zephyr skateboarding team really started to stand out against other skateboarders of the time. No-one else was crouching, or touching the ground or trying to ‘surf on land’ as these kids were, and they did it with such style that people began to really notice what was happening.

It could be difficult to remember watching this movie that skateboarding was still a brand new thing at the time, but the interviews with the original Z-Boys how there are now only go to reiterate certain points at the right time.

It might be difficult for some younger viewers or those not familiar with the origins of skateboarding to understand why the interviewees get so excited when they come to talking about skating around dried-out pools and going up the walls. But its something to remember that nothing had been done like that before and skateboarding up until that point had mainly just been done on the flat, performing handstands and generally keeping balance.

But the passion and sincerity in the voices of the original Z-Boys makes in easier to understand just what an exciting time this was, and this is where the film works well and where we see the flip side to the film emerge. Because this isn’t just a documentary about skateboarding, it’s also about passion, youth, rebellion, freedom and truly living for what you believe in. They weren’t great skaters because they practiced everyday, or had the best boards; they were great skaters because it was part of their soul and they were passionate about surfing and skateboarding.

This is apparent with the story of the Z-Boys’ first skateboard competition where they weren’t going along to win or compete, but just to skate. And it’s a real ‘movie moment’ when they turn up wondering just what the hell they were meant to do on a flat exhibition area.

You know they’re not only going to show up all the other skateboarders because their skating comes from passion and natural style, and also emulating surfing as opposed to the handstands and balancing acts from the early 60s the other were still pulling off. But they were also going to shock everyone with their long hair and ‘gang’ appearance (the ‘uniform’ of the Zephyr skate team being the navy t-shirt, Levi’s and navy Vans).

Dogtown And Z-Boys is a fantastic documentary and should appeal to non-skateboarders too, although some may have trouble understanding why the interviewees speak with so much excitement in their voices as they remember the times explored in the film.

But some younger skaters, expecting to see a skateboarding film, may be disappointed. There are no ollies, kick-flips or grinds here, this was how things started, and it’s important to realise just how far skating has come. But they did it with such style that it’s not boring to watch by any means.

" It’s a real ‘movie moment’ when they turn up wondering just what the hell they were meant to do on a flat exhibition area. "

At just over 90 minutes it’s the perfect length; the interviews with the original skaters and those that they influenced such as Jeff Ament, Tony Hawk and Henry Rollins are well paced and really hold the piece together. There are no real flaws in the film but the only minor gripes I had though were that some of the footage of the kids skating around the flat banks of the LA school grounds got a little repetitive after a while, but there are some great 70s tracks playing throughout, so it’s not like it gets boring.

Also, there’s quite a serious moment where the Z-Boys start talking about how great things could have been for one of the team, Jay Adams, and the film takes quite a sombre, sincere mood. You’re left wondering just what’s wrong with him or what happened to him, and you can feel yourself getting a little upset but have no idea why, especially as Jay is one of the interviewees.

It’s not until the very end of the movie that it’s revealed that he’s currently in prison and suddenly everything becomes clear – but maybe this should have been mentioned earlier to fully understand why all the others are so down about him.

It’s defiantly one to catch at your local art house cinema (I doubt it’ll be on anywhere else), and if not then wait for the video release. Failing that I’m sure it’ll be on Channel 4 one day. It’s definitely a film for any skateboarding fan, those into counter-culture or even fans of 70s retro.


david twomey

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