You could draw a straight line, as the new documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys" doesn't hesitate to do, between the Z-Boys, a scruffy group of outlaw Southern California surfers and skateboarders of the 1970s, and a modern extreme-sports movement so pervasive it's gotten into the Olympics and onto U.S. postage stamps.
And don't the Z-Boys know it.
What audiences might not know but can guess from the film's self-congratulatory tone is that this doc was co-written and directed by Stacy Peralta, a Z-Boy himself. Also Vans, the sneaker company oh-so-casually mentioned as the Z-Boys' shoe of choice, financed the film. Isn't it wonderful when friends help friends?
This chumminess points to flaws in what could easily have been a better documentary. Certainly the Z-Boys' story is a compelling and culturally significant one, and the vintage footage that goes along with it is really something to see.
Shot by Craig Stecyk and Glen E. Friedman back in the 1970s, the home movies of the Z-Boys, especially superstars-in-the-making Jay Adams and Tony Alva, showing off the moves that revolutionized skateboarding, are fluid, stylish and original, and having the chance to watch them in their prime is a wonder.
But as graceful as this group is on the board, that's how graceless it tends to be off it. They're defiant bad boys to the core, full to bursting with in-your-face animosity, still boasting decades later about the fights they got into back in the day.
On one level, who can blame them? They did it their way and made it work, becoming celebrities and influencing kids all over the world. On the other hand, that undeniable success can't hide that it's truly tiresome to spend 90 minutes in their self-satisfied company. Few things in this life age less attractively than bad boys who never felt the need to grow up.
Though director and co-writer (along with production designer Stecyk) Peralta has created a clever visual package for his story, a more impartial filmmaker might have understood the need for other voices to balance against all that attitude, might have understood how hungry the film makes us for even a single non-adulatory moment.
Although it's not surprising that there was only one girl on the original Z-Boys team, it is a bit of a shock to realize that except for her, not a single woman is interviewed for this project. Mothers, sisters, even current or former wives might have provided a different perspective, as might the grown-up versions of those lithesome girlfriends glimpsed in the home-movie footage. But anyone unlikely to burnish the image apparently wasn't allowed near the camera.
Convincingly narrated by Sean Penn, "Dogtown" gives a detailed and fascinating picture of the Z-Boys phenomenon. It all started in Dogtown, a marginal neighborhood including parts of Venice, Ocean Park and South Santa Monica and described by the boys as "the last great seaside slum," and "where the debris meets the sea."
The catalyst for the team was the Jeff Ho & Zephyr Production Surf Shop, founded by Ho, Stecyk and Skip Engblom to produce customized, ahead-of-the-curve surfboards. The future Z-Boys started as youngsters who surfed around the jutting piers of the Pacific Ocean Park amusement zone, used the surf shop as a clubhouse and pioneered a surfing-inspired style of skateboarding that blossomed post-1972 when resilient polyurethane wheels came into vogue.
Using that vintage footage, "Dogtown" shows how the Z-Boys' skating style took an unexpected turn when a 1970s drought emptied swimming pools across the L.A. area and led to "the birth of vertical," the creation of skateboarding moves that went up curved walls for the first time.
Aside from illuminating how Stecyk's articles in SkateBoarder magazine helped turn the Z-Boys into a phenomenon, "Dogtown" is at its dramatic best with mini-profiles of its two biggest names, Adams and Alva. The Adams segment especially, which shows the most naturally gifted of the Z-Boys regretful about the bad choices he made in his life, provides the kind of thoughtful introspection this film could have used a lot more of.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for language and some drug references. Times guidelines: bad language and attitude.
'Dogtown and Z-Boys'
Vans Off the Wall Productions presents an AOP production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Narrator Sean Penn. Director Stacy Peralta. Producer Agi Orsi. Executive producer Jay Wilson. Screenplay Stacy Peralta, Craig Stecyk. Cinematographer Peter Pilafian. Editor Paul Crowder. Music Terry Wilson, Paul Crowder. Production design Craig Stecyk. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
In limited release.