The sport of big-wave surfing has its history recounted in considerable detail in this exuberant but essentially conventional documentary by Stacy Peralta, who earlier dealt with the origin of big-time skateboarding in “Dogtown and Z-Boys” (2001). “Riding Giants” is certainly informative and obviously a labor of love, but while it’s skillfully put together and consistently enjoyable, it lacks the imagination of Dana Brown’s “Step Into Liquid” of last year, beside which it feels just a mite pedestrian.
If the picture doesn’t lift one to the heights you might expect, though, it’s still a solid, sometimes exhilarating piece of work, alternating historical footage of the chronological development of the big-wave phenomenon and interviews with many of those who played important roles in it. “Riding Giants” opens with an amusing bit of animation recounting how the ancient Hawaiian practice was suppressed by fun-hating Calvinist missionaries, only to be resurrected in the early twentieth century. The film then moves to California, covering the birth of a surfing culture there in the post-World War II years, and follows some of the California buffs to the North Shore of Hawaii in the 1950s in search of even better beaches. It’s at this point that the picture introduces the first of its three stars–Greg Noll, whose exploits at Waimea and at Makaha, where he famously rode the “swell of the century” in 1969, made him a legend. The story then shifts back to California and the discovery of Maverick’s, the reef break that became the big wave center of the Pacific coast, by Jeff Clark in the latter half of the 1970s. It eventually moves on to Laird Hamilton, today’s premier big-wave rider, whose addition of jet-skis to the business of grabbing the highest swells has transformed the sport.
Noll, Clark and Hamilton might be thought of as the linchpins of Peralta’s picture, which employs archival footage and interviews with them to record their accomplishments, and thereby the progress of big-wave riding, to excellent effect. All three are genuinely interesting guys, heroic figures in their own way even if you consider the activity they’re engaging in unconscionably reckless. But they’re hardly the only practitioners and commentators whose voices are heard over the visuals; indeed, one could say that the coverage, both through home movies and observations from surfers, journalists and others, is exhaustive and at times exhausting. But “Riding Giants” isn’t just concerned with occurrences on the water. It also tries to convey the cultural changes that surfing brought to America, from the rebellious attitudes that the Californians represented in the fifties and sixties to the massive commercialization that’s characterized the sport in more recent years. And Peralta makes clever use of excerpts from pictures like “Ride the Wild Surf,” the “Gidget” flicks and the “Beach Party” franchise to show how movies both reflected and encouraged the sport’s impact. (It’s curious that in all this “The Endless Summer,” certainly one of the most influential surfing movies, doesn’t get even a mention. Licensing difficulties, perhaps?)
“Riding Giants” is technically accomplished, better in its way than “Dogtown” was. One can quibble over some of the editing choices–cuts that give a strobe effect to action footage–and the musical choices aren’t always wise, especially some of the classical selections (Bach organ music, some solemnly played Satie) that strike a pretentious note. (There are, after all, quintessential “surfing” songs that might have been used.) And occasionally you get the idea that Peralta is so enamored of all the material he’s found that he’s reluctant to snip any of it out; a bit more selectivity and a bit less detail might have been an improvement.
Nonetheless, the enthusiasm and affection that have gone into the film are apparent. Surfer-dudes will find it a treat, but it’s so well done that it should entertain even those of us afraid to go near the water.