Revolution On Wheels

A documentary about skateboarding might seem limited in its appeal to a teen subculture, but the radically stylish "Dogtown and Z-Boys" has already proved that theory wrong. This tribute to the outlaw kids from a scuzzy section of Venice Beach who revolutionized the sport arrives in theaters festooned with prizes: it won best documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, and both the directing and the audience awards at Sundance 2001. These weren't skating crowds, but folks the fiercely territorial Z-boys would probably have dropped concrete on back in the '70s, the way they used to scare off surfers who dared to horn in on their turf.

The Zephyr skating team, made up mostly of young southern California teenagers from broken homes, invented the "vertical," low-to-the-ground, surfing-inspired style of skateboarding that would become the international style, and the feats they accomplished on asphalt-banked school playgrounds and empty swimming pools presaged the high-flying moves we recently saw at the Winter Olympics snowboarding events. "Dogtown," narrated by Sean Penn, makes fascinating cultural history, connecting the raw, graffiti-inspired Z-boy esthetic to the roots of punk culture, showing how the California droughts of the '70s (which resulted in the draining of many a swimming pool) gave rise to the extreme-sports style the Z-boys pioneered. There's a feast of archival foot-age, most shot by Glen E. Friedman and Craig Stecyk, whose articles in SkateBoarder magazine turned these kids into international celebrities.

At which point everything changed. Corporate sponsors waved big money in front of the boys, and the gang that was (and still is) very fond of calling themselves revolutionaries grabbed the bucks (or the drugs and the girls) and went their separate ways. Jay Adams, the youngest and wildest, flamed out on chemical excess: you see the damage in his blank eyes. Stacy Peralta, one of the most successful, went on to direct this film, and his insider's take is both what's best and worst about the movie, which can spin out on self-mythology. Even grown up, the members still have a certain bully-boy braggadocio that's less endearing than they think. The lack of distance, and of introspection, can be frustrating; you want to know more about their private lives than you get. But most viewers may be too stoked by the sheer adrenaline rush of the subject to care. The movie, propelled by its speed-freak editing, emulates the Z-boys' propulsive, in-your-face esthetic. For these wild boys of Venice, style was everything. As one of them says: "Going big works only as long as you look good doing it." And they sure looked good.

Dogtown and Z-BoysSony Picture Classics