Lords of Dogtown begins by saying it is “Inspired by a true story”, and it definitely is. The film is loosely based on the true story of the legendary Z-Boys who changed the face of skateboarding forever in the mid 1970s. The true story was told several years ago in a terrific documentary film written and directed by one of the Z-Boys, Stacy Peralta. That 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys won a slew of awards including the 2002 Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. This time out Peralta is content to merely be the screenwriter and Catherine Hardwicke moves from Production Designer to Director for a second time.
Lords of Dogtown really struck a familiar chord with me. However, that makes sense because in early 1975 I was only 15. Like the Z-Boys, I grew up south of Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, California (if you’ve seen the documentary you’ll get the reference). So please forgive me in advance if I’m a bit biased in reviewing this particular movie, but it definitely resonates with me for good reason.
The true story is in the documentary and not Lords of Dogtown, so if you want the truth, this isn’t the film for you. But if you want to be entertained, enthralled and excited by some good filmmaking then you need to get into the multiplex to see Lords of Dogtown. Hardwicke’s use of a single, hand-held camera during the skating sequences makes them almost seem more than they are, even if the actors in the lead roles can’t do their own stunt work. That flaw, and the fact that the skaters are working without the protective gear that the real skaters used back in the day when they were exploring the very edge of the envelope of what was physically possible, are easily forgiven in light of the quality visuals that Hardwicke delivers.
Skip (Heath Ledger) runs the Zephyr surf shop where the Z-Boys hang out when they aren’t surfing or skating. When a vendor brings in a technological improvement for skating known as urethane wheels, he gets the idea of forming a team of skaters. Jay (Emile Hirsch) and Tony (Victor Rasuk) make the team immediately along with a number of others, but Stacy (John Robinson) is left off because he is busy working at a job and doesn’t have time for mandatory team practices.
The team storms onto the scene at the 1975 Del Mar Skateboarding National Championships. Stacy shows up and competes without a team and after that, things accelerate. The Z-Boys quickly begin changing the very nature of the sport and what was once fun and games rapidly becomes high finance and corporate sponsorship. In this arena the Z-Boys and Skip face a rough road going forward.
One of the developments of the era was a severe drought in the region that forced many pool owners to drain their pools and among their other excesses (drugs, drinking, vandalism, etc), the Z-Boys began scouting out and sneaking into homes with dry swimming pools to refine their skating techniques on these smooth surfaces that duplicated waves for skaters to use surf-like movements on the skateboards.
Each of the three main Z-Boys goes in a different direction after the team breaks up, but somehow they will come together in the end to skate a particular empty pool one more time, for a very special purpose.
What makes Lords of Dogtown work? One thing is its music. Each of the songs chosen for the film fits just right in the place where it is played. Not just tempo, but lyrical content as well. In addition, Elliot Davis’s cinematography combined with Chris Gorak’s production design does a very credible job of recreating the 1970s era P.O.P. and surrounding area. The actors aren’t brilliant, but as an ensemble they get the job done. The skaters who portray the groundbreaking brilliance of the Z-Boys are just plain fun to watch as they dazzle us with their performances in the pools and on the concrete.
A side note to those who love the music and want to run out and pick up the soundtrack, beware. Some of the tracks in the movie have been omitted from the soundtrack, so look it over before you buy it.
A lot of film critics panned Lords of Dogtown and in doing so, said it just didn’t measure up to the documentary version of the story that had already been done. I grant that, but the comparison isn’t fair. One film is a documentary and the other is an attempt to entertain. If you view it as that, then Lords of Dogtown definitely barks up the right tree.