With verve, style and a fine sense of the human side of surf culture, Jeremy Gosch makes a terrific splash with his debut doc, “Bustin’ Down the Door.” Pic is certain to rank alongside “Step Into Liquid,” “Riding Giants” and “Five Summer Stories” in the primo category of surf movies that rip onscreen and tell a great story. This yarn, about how a group of Aussie and South African surfers took Oahu by storm in the mid-’70s, may be the best of the bunch, and looks to pick up solid rides in summer release (pic opens July 25) and subsequent vid tubes.
The story of how Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Shaun and Michael Tomson, Mark Richards, Ian Cairns and Peter Townend made their way to the already legendary Oahu North Shore in 1974 is well known in surfing circles, but a well-kept secret outside them. In its early minutes, Gosch’s film makes it clear that this group fomented nothing less than a revolution in the disorganized sport and helped organize it for the first time.
It was, in Rabbit’s phrase, “the best adventure we ever had.” But that doesn’t begin to suggest the depth, physical and emotional, of the adventure to come.
While the young bucks grew up in fine surfing zones — from Durban, South Africa’s enthusiastic scene, to Oz’s touted Gold Coast — none of them compared to the alluring challenge of Oahu’s northwest corner, where a unique meeting of north Pacific swells in the winter and an immense underwater coral structure produced world-class waves sometimes topping 30 feet. As some scary archive footage reveals, the craggy coral reef is also what makes this one of the world’s most dangerous surf spots.
Well-told, sometimes emotional background sketches of Rabbit, Shaun Tomson and Richards reveal different lives brought together by extraordinary talent and fanatical love for riding waves. Rabbit’s story is the most moving (he’s rightly credited for inspiring the film), which involves divorced parents and dire poverty that led him to commit robbery. In different ways, these lads needed to prove themselves far from home, making “Bustin’ Down the Door” a saga of exiles.
Bragging exiles, it turns out, who immediately clashed culturally with the laid-back Hawaiians, both white and native. What quickly became clear in the winter of 1974-75 is that the Aussies and South Africans simply didn’t surf like the locals, and pulled all sorts of innovative and dangerous moves unseen in Oahu.
A fascinating and subtle dimension of Gosch’s filming, which relies heavily on talking heads yet is never less than cinematic, is how his camera captures the conflicted reactions of a number of Hawaiian vets (including Eddie Rothman, Fred Hemmings, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Jeff Rakman and Clyde Aikau) as they recall the charged period. While deeply impressed with the outsiders’ plucky innovation, they also chide them — and worse, in Rothman’s case — for not respecting local ways.
After publicly declaring in the major surfing magazines that they were the world’s best and that “Aloha is dead” (as one headline read), the non-Hawaiians encountered great hostility from the locals in the 1976 season. Rabbit and Cairn’s accounts of how their lives were threatened by enraged Hawaiian groups reveal the tense, ugly side of the sport’s cultural subcurrents to a degree never before described in a surf pic.
Most critically, Rabbit, the Tomsons, Richards, Cairns and Townend determined to operate like pros by winning world championships, gaining media support and building the basis for sponsorships that soon became surfing’s financial backbone. Pic lays out in no uncertain terms how a form of clubbish amateur recreation became a business sport through the creation of a star system of champions — exactly as every other pro sport began.
Gosch is blessed by fabulously engaging subjects who are willing to show their flaws and sensitivities — watching the facade of bravado dissolve on these guys’ faces is one of pic’s memorable pleasures. The film looks and sounds sizzling from start to finish, with an impeccably chosen soundtrack of songs. Edward Norton’s narration overdoes the flat-toned stud routine, however.
Pic’s bookending sequences are especially notable.