"Dogtown and Z-Boys"

"Dogtown and Z-Boys" reminds that the film biz is still pretty much a guy thing, and the indie biz largely a white-guys-under-30 thing. Its flashback to a unique group of SoCal skateboarders does indeed excavate a fascinating story. But feature's vivid appeal for nostalgic ex-suburban curb jumpers won't necessarily extend to wider auds.

This review was corrected on Feb. 16, 2001.

“Dogtown and Z-Boys” won both the Docu Audience and Directing Awards (sharing latter with “Scout’s Honor”) at Sundance, clearly connecting with the local demo — which reminds that the film biz is still pretty much a guy thing, and the indie biz largely a white-guys-under-30 thing. Not to disparage “Dogtown”: Its flashback to a unique group of mid-’70s Southern California skateboarders — now legendary among the Thrasher mag set — does indeed excavate a fascinating story, albeit with some missed opportunities in the telling. But feature’s vivid appeal for nostalgic ex-suburban curb jumpers won’t necessarily extend to wider auds.

More than just another extreme-sports docu, yet frustratingly underdeveloped in the departments needed to transcend that genre — especially individual human drama and cultural epoch analysis —- “Dogtown” reps a highly specialized must-see unlikely to build significant crossover appeal. Theatrically, it looks like a short-term-bow, longer-term rep-calendar item, akin to most rock concert pics. Eternal youth lies in mainlining fans via homevid.

Relying on latter-day interviews and much archival footage, pic’s early section establishes the setting: “Dogtown,” the stretch of oceanfront West L.A. that had once been a Coney Islandlike fun mecca but by the mid-’60s had grown seedy. Jagged boardwalk pilings left by shuttered amusement parks rendered one area particularly dangerous to surf — a point of pride for locals.

Far from the glam “Endless Summer” image of middle-class jock surfdom, scene was rowdy, reckless. Its regulars devised myriad hot-dogging techniques for the sake of pure one-upmanship.

Their style did not go unnoticed by area kids, some of whom started to ape such stunts on terra firma. Once a national fad, skateboarding was passe by the late ’60s. Manufacturing had waned to the point where West L.A. youth were forced to craft their own boards from scratch. When two “outlaw” surfies opened their own custom equipment shop, they also took a paternal, then professional interest in 12 teens whose skateboarding swagger was “hardcore urban” to the max.

These dozen “Z-Boys” (including one girl, Peggy Oki) were “surf rats” riding “asphalt waves” — inventing moves that defied gravity, precedence and any thought of personal safety. Craig Stecyk’s series of mid-’70s photo essays in Skateboarder Mag made the “Zephyr” team overnight idols to wannabes nationwide. Suddenly yanked away from their surfshop mentors, the Z-Boys, who were mostly troubled kids from broken homes, found themselves rolling in corporate sponsorship, endorsement cash, promo tours, etc. Resultant “rock star” lifestyle was too much, too soon for some.

It’s in these later developments that “Dogtown and Z-Boys” should gain a deeper resonance — and doesn’t, quite. While director Stacy Peralta’s original footage of the “boys’ ” amazing feats (most performed during “guerrilla raids” of drought-drained private swimming pools, the ideal space for “vertical” skateboard flights) will strike even casual viewers as a real find, they do go on, and on. Meanwhile, dramatic personal stories of protags are shortchanged.

Z-Boy Peralta himself cannily used his young celebrity to exploit biz opportunities, eventually founding a sports multimedia empire. The two other most-admired Zephyrs fared less well: “Aerial-based maneuver” whiz Tony Alva blew his longer-term chances in a haze of egomania and partying; poetry-on-wheels stylist Jay Adams detoured into “drugs and stuff like that.” He’s currently doing time in a Hawaii penitentiary — for what crime, we’re never told.

Peralta’s hints at tabloid-style revelation remain just that, with little follow-through even when the participants seem willing to talk turkey. “Dogtown” will frustrate general auds who sense poignant veins of human interest the film scarcely develops. Result is perhaps too much of one good thing (the exhilarating ’70s boarding footage) — though conversely, more insight into personal stories would have made even a longer run-time fly faster.

Nonetheless, package is lively, if loosely structured. Notion is advanced that the Zephyr squad inspired today’s Xtreme sports; actual rock stars (Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye from Fugazi, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament) turn up to second that emotion, though at times pic’s worshipful p.o.v. goes a bit overboard.

Apt period tunes (Beach Boys, Bowie, Ted Nugent) provide welcome sonic diversion. Narrator Sean Penn’s iconic weight in this context (given his breakthrough role as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s” definitive SoCal stoner-surfie Spicoli) adds a fun fillip.

Dogtown and Z-Boys

Production

A Vans Off the Wall presentation of an Agi Orsi production. Produced by Agi Orsi. Executive producer, Jay Wilson. Co-producers, Daniel Ostroff, Stephen Nemeth, Glen E. Friedman. Directed by Stacy Peralta. Screenplay, Peralta, Craig Stecyk.

Crew

Camera (color), Peter Pilafian; editor, Paul Crowder; music supervisor, Paul Crowder, Peralta; production designer, C.R. Stecyk; supervising sound editors, Eddie Kim, Dane A. Davis. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 2001. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Narrator: Sean Penn
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