Purely from the technical standpoint, Stacy Peralta’s film about the California skate-boarding gang he was part of in the 1970s is solid in a conventional way, mixing archival footage and filmed interviews dexterously to portray a bunch of risk-takers who fashioned a new style of skating that’s since become the norm. Sean Penn’s narration is straightforward and clear, too. Though some of its techniques–like speeding up an interview to get to the next revealing line, giving us a few seconds of gabble and blurred images–are irritating, and the music is occasionally overbearing, overall “Dogtown and Z-Boys” is a thoroughly competent piece of work.
It’s the subject, and the self-glorifying character with which it’s presented, that gives one pause. Basically these skaters were just a bunch of airheads–“Rebels Without A Brain” could be an alternate title here–who ignored everything in life, it would appear, but seeking thrills in the most dangerous sorts of surfing and, eventually, blading. (After all, one of their own number remarks about their “sport,” in its earliest form, “It had no promise, it had no nothing”). They prattle on ceaselessly about their own uniqueness and artistic creativity, saying it was all about style; but it really seems to have been about largely wasted lives. In their search for the “perfect” course they regularly invaded other peoples’ property and drained their swimming pools to provide sites for their experiments, which basically appear to have been an invitation to maiming. (The wave-chasers from the 1966 “Endless Summer” were obsessed, too, but at least they weren’t regularly breaking laws to get to their dream beaches. And filmmaker Bruce Brown maintained a detached, ironic tone that distanced him from the madness of the venture.) An old fogey reviewer can’t help but note that these fellows seem mostly to have frittered away their talents on something not just ephemeral but pointless. (And, you have to wonder, if anybody had been seriously injured during the gang’s escapades oi folks’ back yards, who would have been legally responsible?) Moreover, the legacy of these subjects is the plethora of “extreme sports” so popular in the present–something which, one could easily argue, is more deplorable than it is worthy of praise. Given all this, the easy assumption on the part of the presenters that the Z-Boys were accomplishing something great is a doubtful proposition indeed. It’s sad enough when some of the skaters, grown up and enjoying rather doubtful success, wax eloquent about their past “triumphs,” but the most enthusiastic and voluble contributor is the photographer who shot most of the vintage footage of the athletes nearly thirty years ago and still seems utterly absorbed with them. The fellow seems rather pathetic, like a hanger-on for whom his servitude remains his most cherished memory. We hear nothing about his future career, which suggests he might not have had one; and to think of a glorified groupie still looking back on his attachment to such guys as the highpoint of his life is more than a little sad.
The picture misses some real opportunities, too. One of the team members, for example, is currently in prison; but though recollections are included from him, we really hear little about the downward spiral which led him there. Another skater is reported to have disappeared years ago in Mexico; even a failed attempt to track him down might have proven fascinating, but there’s no indication one was even tried. And, of course, there’s a lack of detail about the kids’ family backgrounds, consideration of which might have explained why they turned to this particular outlet.
So if a fast-paced but narrowly-aimed look back at the outlaw skateboarding movement of the ’70s will suffice for you, “Dogtown and Z-Boys” should fill the bill. But if one’s looking for a bit of mildly critical analysis of a pop cultural phenomenon that perhaps has brought more harm than benefit, or even a cautionary tale about making the wrong choices, it will prove disappointingly bland and adulatory.