About an hour into Lords of Dogtown, Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch, radiant) tells his teammates, Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) and Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), “We’re gonna be on summer vacation for the next 20 years.” The trio of skaters under the legendary Zephyr surf shop are reaching the crest of their wave as a unit, though they don’t realize it in the moment. Soon they’ll go their separate ways, signing to different sponsors and succumbing to the myriad of temptations that come with fame and fortune. They’ll find themselves commodities — hotly desired ones, sure, but commodities nevertheless. Their agency will be slowly stripped away, despite the group’s position as the spark that ignites a new era of skateboarding. But for now, there is only a future that seems limitless — an endless summer at their beck and call.
Catherine Hardwicke’s 2005 adaptation of the legendary documentary Dogtown & Z-Boys fits the mold of countless docudramas, its shape bearing the most similarity to music biopics. Like Ray, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Straight Outta Compton before it, Lords of Dogtown chronicles the rise and fall of a pivotal group of artists (one could argue athletes, but Hardwicke films the Z-Boys’ skate sessions more like free-form dance than feats of athleticism) who change their respective field forever. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.
Rise-and-fall narratives are a reliable routine, the Campbellian Hero’s Journey of docudrama — it’s why they were so easily skewered in 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Fame is fickle, and it’s easy money to juxtapose its trappings with the artistry of a film’s central real-life figure. The problem is that the fall is rarely as compelling onscreen as the rise. Watching generational talents come into their own is inherently watchable, though it’s often utilized as something of a first-act cheat code. It’s shorthand for story investment that plays on the audience’s familiarity with a figure’s story the same way superhero movies play fast and loose with easter eggs for a cheap pop. Foundations like this wash away quickly when the fall comes — it isn’t as engaging to watch an artist throw it all away when a film has failed to convey what was truly so special about them.
Dogtown avoids this pratfall, though not by avoiding familiar imagery (several shots in the film serve to recall C.R. Stecyk III’s iconic photos of the Zephyr team). Rather, it’s that Hardwicke understands that such moments are ultimately set dressing and instead dedicates most of her focus to making you feel the ways in which Peralta, Alva, and Adams changed (and in a sense created the modern conception of) skate culture. Cliché as it may be, she shows rather than tells, contrasting the dorky flat-surface style of the prior generation of skaters with the balletic kineticism the Zephyr crew introduces to the sport (often framed in sumptuous unbroken takes, beautiful blonde locks floating as the boys glide down the streets of Venice Beach).
The early acts of the film are saturated and sunshiney as the Zephyr team sparks the modern skate era (thanks in large part to the introduction of urethane wheels into the game, allowing kids who grew up surfing to hit the same hard cuts and turns they did on waves). As Jay’s prediction of an endless summer plays out, Hardwicke’s visuals start to bleach, sun-faded grays and blues making their way into the aesthetic as the Zephyr team breaks up and the primary trio struggles with the weight of fame.
She also proves herself uniquely suited to tell this story in the same way Kathryn Bigelow did years before in Point Break. Skating is an athletic feat, sure, but Hardwicke (like Bigelow before her with surfing) understands that it shouldn’t be filmed as such. She hones in on skating as an extension of the male form in movement, allowing the skate sequences to feel delicate, rather than the extreme-sports style one might expect. Rasuk’s bleached curls bounce as he hits the slope of a pool wall while Emile Hirsch’s hazel eyes light up after landing a trick no skater has ever attempted before. She isn’t afraid to soften her leads, to make them pretty.
Every early skate montage set to raucous classic rock is counterbalanced by a solo session set to melancholic tracks by Pink Floyd and Neil Young — a hazy, bittersweet vibe that captures the reality of the dog days of summer when the heat bears down on you and you start to beg for the sun to set. Twenty years of summer will drain you, even more so when you’re too famous to cool down with a surf session (Stacy at one point laments to Jay that he didn’t even have a chance to surf on a recent work trip to Australia).
That melancholic air simmers throughout the film and comes to a head in appropriately quiet fashion. Toward its end, we revisit Skip Engbloom (Heath Ledger in an arguable top-three career performance), the man who both brought the Zephyr team together and tore them apart. He’s blown all the money his get-rich-quick skate-team scheme brought his way and since sold the Zephyr surf shop, though the new owner keeps him on as a shaper. The last time we see Ledger as Skip he’s finishing up a board for a young customer, a cigarette dangling from his lips as “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart plays on the radio. He dances around the board, singing along to a song he loves as he sands it down. His puppy-dog eyes betray the sentimentality he’s spent years stifling. His boys have long since left town, and he knows if he’d done better, maybe they’d have stayed. Still, perhaps there are worse ways to live out the dog days of an endless summer than shaping surfboards and singing along to Rod Stewart songs.
Hardwicke’s film is far from perfect. The script (written by the totally unbiased Stacy Peralta) falters at times, and two of the three leads are perhaps just a little too green (Hirsch is magnetic). Still, it works in spite of it all because it makes you feel what so many other formulaic biopics don’t: the end of a transformative moment for both a culture and for the three kids at its center. It has always called to my mind an early Every Time I Die lyric: “We made the scene when we made a scene, and though it was brief, it meant everything.” The time the Z-Boys spent together as a unit pales in comparison to the lengthy careers they would go on to have separately. (Peralta’s founding of the Bones Brigade, which included a young Tony Hawk, is perhaps more seismic a contribution to skating than anything he does in the film.) Still, it mattered. The film ends not with a triumphant reunion but with an uneasy reconciliation and the realization that if you’re going to spend 20 years on summer vacation, you might as well do it with your boys.
Lords of Dogtown is streaming on HBO Max.