Lords of Dogtown: not quite Rocky on wheels, but close
Before skateboarding was co-opted by ESPN 2, Hot Topic, and every truly godawful punk band in the world, it was a movement comprised of little more than a band of kids who wanted to surf on asphalt. Lords of Dogtown tells the story of those SoCal salad days, chronicling the rise of the renegade sport’s first superstars, Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva and Jay Adams. Though it has all the most obvious hallmarks of the traditional star-is-born film, it’s held together by a talented group of young actors and director Catherine Hardwicke’s tangible enthusiasm for the legend of Dogtown.
A dramatized rendering of Peralta’s own acclaimed documentary (2001’s Dogtown and Z-Boys), Lords of Dogtown takes place in the mid-1970s, against the sun-drenched backdrop of Venice Beach, California. The film’s three young stars, John Robinson, Emile Hirsch and Victor Rasuk, are errand boys for Zephyr Surf Shop when the shop’s owner (Heath Ledger, channeling Jim Morrison by way of Val Kilmer) senses a profit to be made in the skating culture and forms the Zephyr skate team. The Z-Boys are born, and several skate competitions follow, played out to the best classic rock soundtrack I’ve heard since Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.
If it sounds like the stuff Ski School is made of, it basically is. The film’s strongest points aren’t in its plot. It might possess an overarching truth (beware the noncommittal phrase ‘“Inspired by a True Story’” ‘— that kind of inspiration can easily lead to Pearl Harbor), but almost every element of it feels like it comes directly from a handbook on How to Write Underdog Stories. I’m not completely immune to that sort of thing ‘— when done well, I can still like it, and I liked this movie.
It probably stems from the fact that the real-life Z-Boys’ handprints are all over it (Peralta, who wrote the script, has a cameo, as do Alva, Adams, and several of the sport’s biggest modern names). Theirs is certainly a one-sided account ‘— there’s always been something brainless about the skate culture’s struggle against The Man, herein personified in restaurant managers, cops, parents, or anyone else with the temerity to suggest that the Z-Boys stop acting like children. But putting that aside, I was won over by the affection the real-life Lords of Dogtown have for the genesis of their sport. The film might lack originality, but its subjects clearly don’t ‘— these are the guys who used the empty pools left by the Venice Beach drought to invent pool skating, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them do so. Besides, one must concede that many sports movies follow the same pattern: humble beginnings, dizzying heights, Icarian fall and either ultimate redemption or disgrace. Whether or not I view a film in this genre as a success relies wholly on how much I’m made to care about the individuals involved. Lords of Dogtown, blatantly idealized though it is, still has enough heart to make me want to cheer for its young heroes. It aims to be for skateboarding what Hoosiers was for basketball; so what if it ends up more akin to Blue Chips? It won’t always be the best skateboarding movie ever made ‘— hopefully a smarter, more clear-eyed one will come along sometime ‘— but it is for the moment.
As a child, Glen Baity watched Gleaming the Cube 500 times. To comment on how this may have affected his view of skateboarding, e-mail him at email@example.com