DocuMondays – Dogtown & The Z-Boys

Dogtown & The Z-Boys (2001, dir. Stacy Peralta)
Narrated by Sean Penn

As anyone who knows me well can tell you, I am by no means a sports enthusiast. However, even I know the names Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, and Jay Adams. I can’t say I knew a lot about them before I watched this documentary, but I did know they were big names in the world of skateboarding. In the early 1990s, skate culture was a big deal. I was about 9 or 10 years old and in all of child-focused media you had skateboard bound characters; from Nintendo’s Skate or Die to the skateboard bound Michelangelo in TMNT. There was an entire aesthetic movement backing it as well: Chicano graffiti inspired neon clothing is what I remember most vividly. All of that started back in 1971 in South Venice Beach, California.

The story of the Zephyr Skate Team is the story of the class divide in America. The young men and women who skated on Zephyr were children of broken homes who lived in the “wrong side of the tracks” part of Venice Beach. The shoreline there was not one tourists ever visited and its most prominent landmark was the decrepit hulking skeleton of an abandoned theme park. The figures in the film began by surfing amongst the treacherous collapsing roller coasters and pier, and were forced to seek recreation elsewhere as the waves only came in at a very specific time of the day. As a lark they took up skateboarding, which had faded away as a fad in the mid-60s. The invention of polyurethane wheels, replacing the easily chipped and locking up clay ones, allowed the boards to grip the pavement and provide a smoother ride. Thus, many surfing techniques were brought in by the skaters. Basically, the modern skateboarding aesthetic is a direct result of the play these young people engaged in day after day.

The economic conditions of the key figures seemed to be one the largest driving forces. Many of the young men who skated on Zephyr came from homes where the fathers had left or, poor economic conditions resulted in, aggressive and abusive fathers. They found the Jeff Ho Surfboard Shop as a second home, where proprietors Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom, and Craig Stecyk encouraged the skaters to develop their own individual styles of the riding the boards. South Venice was a community envious of the North Venice mansions, and as fate would have it, a heavy drought struck California during the early 1970s. This left a lot of dried out pools and some of the more inventive skaters began to see the similarities between the flourishes and curves of the cement pools and the waves they were used to riding. And so, vertical skateboarding was born, skaters attempting to leave but one wheel touching the very rim of the bowl they rode in.

Much like a VH1 Behind the Music episode, we’re given a traditional Rise and Fall story, but what makes it so remarkable is that the key players were all teenagers for both the Rise and Fall portions. Stacy Peralta came out as the most successful, going on to champion and mentor skaters like Tony Hawk. Tony Alva struck out as a very successful entrepreneur, becoming the first skater to break away from the companies and start his own. The saddest of the lot was Jay Adams, whom all the interviewees agree could have been the best in history, but he got caught up in a drug lifestyle that included crystal meth that sent him to some rather difficult places. The film does an excellent job of structuring its narrative, and does everything I want from a good documentary: It causes me to have interest in a subject I have thought little about, tells me an interesting story about very human people, and leaves me wanting to know more.

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