With equal measures of bemusement and amazement, co-directors David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge zip around the world to examine a shoe-centric subculture in “Sneakerheadz,” their fleet and fly documentary about the designing, retailing, trading and fanatical stockpiling of unique sneakers — or kicks, as those who know the lingo call them — that drive obsessed collectors to a variety of extremes. The film’s zippy pacing, simpatico p.o.v. and sheer entertainment value doubtless will help stoke want-to-see enthusiasm among its target youth demographic when it hits multiple platforms in the fall. But don’t be surprised if respectful reviews and admiring word of mouth entice even older viewers who haven’t worn the sort of footwear exalted here since they sweated out high-school P.E. classes.
One interviewee only half-jokingly defines a sneakerhead as a fanatic “who will forgo paying the rent to buy a shoe they will never wear,” referencing the common phenomenon of buying two pairs — “One to rock, one to stock!” — each time Nike, Reebok, Adidas or some other outfit drops a new product. But such behavior isn’t confined to the cash-strapped. Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie proudly displays the enormous collection he stores within a vault inside his home, and admits that — like many of the other hardcore headz interviewed by Friendly and Partridge — he long ago lost count of just how many kicks he has corralled.
“Sneakerheadz” traces the origins of sneakermania back to 1984, when Nike pacted with basketball legend Michael Jordan to release the first Air Jordan athletic shoe. Massive sales triggered the output of several subsequent styles of Air Jordans – AJ II, AJ III, etc. (“A sneakerhead,” quips another interviewee, “is someone who learned Roman numerals from Michael Jordan.”) Other manufacturers quickly followed suit, elevating the profile of their products by signing endorsement and/or design deals with marquee athletes, artists and rappers. By the time Run-D.MC charted with their swaggering hip-hop ode “My Adidas” in 1986, sneakermania already was a burgeoning phenomenon that, to this day, continues to metastasize.
Friendly (a vet producer whose credits include “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Courage Under Fire”) and Partridge (a multihyphenate whose experience directing music videos serves him well here) have assembled a diverse array of talking heads to illuminate sneakermania. Artfully constructed as a series of titled “chapters,” the film is driven by commentaries from notables ranging from designers Jeff Staple and Frank “The Butcher” Rivera to rapper Wale and actor-comic Mike Epps, and illustrated with material gathered during the cinematic equivalent of fact-finding missions to Tokyo, Boston, Los Angeles and other stomping grounds for sneakerheadz.
Some wax nostalgic for the pre-Internet days when collecting kicks meant traveling to other cities (or countries) to locate somebody who knew somebody who stocked select product (discontinued brands, sneakers made and sold only in other lands, etc.) in back rooms and basements. Nowadays, a seasoned sneakerhead notes with just a hint of disdain, anyone can simply click on an Instagram image and purchase with a credit card. Even so, the venturesome still frequent massive conventions, where sneakers are bought, sold and traded with the same zeal geeks evidence while hunting for sought-after comic books at similar gatherings.
The tone throughout “Sneakerheadz” is mostly light and bright, but the filmmakers don’t stint on anthropological detail, or shy away from the darker aspects of getting kicks by any means necessary. The early, explosive growth of sneakermania was accelerated, interviewees indicate, by suburban white teens who wanted to look a cool as the hip-hop artists they admired. (In other words, by the same demo that helped popularize hip-hop itself.) As demand has increased exponentially, so have the profits earned by industrious dealers who resell limited-release kicks for ten or more times the original purchase price.
Staple recalls when Manhattan hordes lined up in freezing weather to purchase the first Pigeon Dunk shoe he designed for Nike — and how cops had to drag off the more unruly members of the mob. Later, a far more serious note is struck when the film humanizes a grim statistic — an estimated 1,200 people each year are killed during sneaker thefts — by interviewing Dazie Williams, a Houston mother whose son, Joshua Williams, was shot and killed in 2012 by thugs who coveted the Air Jordans that Joshua had purchased for himself and his own son.
Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez, who directs the Hoarding Disorder Research Program at Columbia University, raises a provocative question: “How do you distinguish normal collecting from hoarding disorder?” Even some of the more avid collectors interviewed in “Sneakerheadz” concede that maybe, just maybe, their craving for kicks has gotten out of hand. In a hilarious ABC News clip, basketball great Carmelo Anthony grudgingly admits to a gobsmacked Michael Strahan that he stopped counting — but kept accumulating — after he reached the one-thousand mark.
Yet the film overall remains scrupulously nonjudgmental, if not whole-heartedly supportive, as other sneakerheadz rhapsodize over the objects of the obsession. “Unfortunately,” baseballer Guthrie says, “I haven’t been able to determine quite yet when enough is enough.” Truth to tell, however, Guthrie and the vast majority of his fellow fanatics on view here don’t sound like they spend too many sleepless nights fretting over the issue.
Production values are attractively slick across the board. The musical selections on the soundtrack are smartly apt. And yes, rest assured, Run-DMC’s “My Adidas” is included in the mix.