Any good documentary holds appeal beyond the subject matter, and that's what we get with "Dogtown and Z-Boys," which is tag-lined "The Birth of Extreme." It also could have been subtitled "A Brief and Funky History of Skateboarding in America," or "The Original Skate Punks," because skateboarding as we know it today and extreme sports began with 12 semi-delinquent surfers from the Dogtown/Venice/South Santa Monica area who killed time in the afternoons by making skateboards and practicing their surfing moves in the asphalt drainage gullies near the local junior high and elementary schools.
They were responsible for the first "No Skateboarding" signs being posted, and they were so flat-out radical that they were the rock stars of the sport . . . before it became a sport. They were cocky, intimidating, and fearless. And they pushed each other to outdo each other with new moves and techniques, including going aerial . . . something that would re-define skateboarding and so many other extreme sports for the next four decades.
We're introduced to the original Z-Boys: Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Bob Biniak, Chris Cahill, Paul Constantineau, Shogo Kubo, Jim Muir, Peggy Oki, Stacy Peralta, Nathan Pratt, Wentzle Ruml IV, and Allen Sarlo. And we see them in action and learn their stories.
Why Z-Boys? Because they hung out at the Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions shop in Santa Monica, which was founded by surfers and entrepreneurs Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom, and Craig Stecyk. Theirs was a radical surf shop that produced custom-made boards that looked like no other and were painted to look like the urban graffiti that was a part of the tough Dogtown neighborhood. The shop became a hang-out for troubled teens, and soon the three men found themselves coaching the teens in surfing moves, then skateboards. They became, as one of the now-adult teens reminisced, father-figures for the group. Only these fathers made you work odd jobs, like sweeping up . . . and rolling their joints.
Obviously, they knew that something special was going on, because they documented just about everything. There is SO MUCH vintage footage to illustrate this documentary that it's almost an embarrassment of riches. At the time, Stecyk wrote articles about the group and took photos, getting the Z-Boys early notoriety in premier skateboarding magazines. And directing "Dogtown and Z-Boys" years later is none other than Stacy Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys, using all kinds of footage from the early days. It's that insider access that makes this documentary edgier and more honest than most. It's also why the now-adult Z-Boys interviewed on-camera are so perfectly candid. Of the good-ol'-days, one of them says, "I was on summer vacation for about 20 years."
This documentary, shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, attempts to be as raw as the original Z-Boys and their skateboarding and lifestyles. Dirt flickers are added to more contemporary sequences. Narrator Sean Penn flubs up and that flub is left in, so we hear him clear his throat and begin again. Some moments are sped up to bypass audio cuts, and a few other times Peralta does a little DJ number by doing a fast-rewind and letting us hear the gobbledygook and see the sped-up retro-video. Stuff like that adds attitude, and that's what this group had . . . in spades.
At the time these guys hit the scene, skateboards were "a kiddie fad," like yo-yos and hula hoops. Then you get these kids from broken homes who have all sorts of pent-up anger and attitude, and it's all channeled into their skateboarding. And how tough were they? These were the people who claimed the old Pacific Ocean Park as their own. And they surfed through the piers, pilings, and twisted roller-coaster track of the old, half-razed park, which they dubbed "Dogtown"-where Route 66, America's Dream, ends--and defended it with all the tough obstinacy of a street-gang. "You didn't go near that place if you didn't know somebody or didn't live there," one of them recalled, or else you were flat out beaten up.
All of this is about as fascinating as bad boys are to good girls, and it gets even better as you hear the stories of how they copied the moves of their surfing heroes, aping Hawaiian Larry Bertlemann's low crouch wave-touch and Australian Terry Fitzgerald's equally innovative moves. And coaching them were the Zephyr Three. As Skip Engblom recalled, they had "defeated Pan and turned them all into pirates," and he was, in essence, Captain Hook.
We see the difference between this bunch and conventional skateboarders at the 1975 Del Mar national championships sponsored by Bahne Skateboards. That was the pivotal moment for this group, and we see clips from the competition in which Oki won first among the women, Adams won third in Jr. Freestyle, Alva placed fourth, Harney (a new recruit) placed 2nd in the slalom, and Pratt placed fourth. But because they did everything with style, it led to offers that eventually broke up the team.
This documentary mixes clips with history and interviews with Z-Boys and Stecyk and Ho and Engblom, and it flows with all the style of the Z-Boys at their zenith. But more than the competition, what fascinates is the background on this bunch. In the '70s, when droughts plagued California and swimming pools were drained, they would pry up fences and sneak onto private property to skateboard inside the pools. And in the most poignant segment, we learn that a kid named Dino who was dying of brain cancer asked his father to empty their pool and let the Z-Boys skate their. It became the "dogbowl" because dogs used to hang around the edges, along with the owners, as the Z-boys did their thing. It was there that they recall having their "hey-day," and there where vertical skateboarding began.
When I lived in California during the '70s, skateboarding was so popular that the scouts in my troop (yes, I was a scoutmaster) talked me into giving it a try. "You just have to let go," they said. "Just know that you're going to fall, and don't care." And I found myself on a skateboard, flying down a hill at an alarming rate of speed, without any kneepads or helmet. No one even thought about protection in those days, and that's another thing that makes the Z-Boys' exploits so amazing to watch. But after you've surfed through pilings and twisted metal, what's a little concrete or asphalt?
"Dogtown and Z-Boys" isn't really the kind of film that's made for Blu-ray. It's the kind of film that's made for VHS or home movies. This is rough stuff, and it's full of grain and noise, which turns up even on some of the later interviews. The film is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also a little guerrilla, with an English 5.0 DTS-HD MA audio coming alive a little only when music from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, The Allman Brothers Band, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, David Bowie, The Buzzcocks, Devo, Peter Frampton, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, James Gang, Pink Floyd, The Stooges, Rod Stewart, The Pretenders, ZZ Top, Robin Trower, and Jimi Hendrix kicks in. It's not as full-bodied a sound as I would have liked, but it matches the rawness of the subject matter and the video, and that's a good thing. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and Hindi. Apparently skateboarding is huge in India. Like the video, the audio for this film is more suited to an 8-track in a woody. Why the Blu-ray, you have to wonder, unless the industry is moving in that direction.
There's not much in the way of bonus features. Peralta is joined by his editor, Paul Crowder, who talk about the decisions they made in a commentary that's average at best. An alternate ending is provided in standard definition, along with a single deleted scene and "raw" skate footage of the Z-Boys doing their thing. Then there's "Lords of Dogtown Webisodes" that seem to be priming the pump for a "Lords of Dogtown" Blu-ray release, trailers for other Sony titles, and two brief bonus features that show Peralta visiting Ho in Hawaii and the group skating. The disc is also BD-Live enabled, if you're into that sort of thing.
Raw, baby, raw. That's what this documentary is, and that's why it's not meant for Blu-ray. But Blu-ray is the wave of the future, then this group certainly is entitled to catch it.