I remember the urethane revolution. And I vividly remember following the adventures of the Z-Boys in the pages of Skateboarder Magazine in the late '70s. My brother had a subscription, and every month, from our bedrooms in a place called Spokane where almost no one rode skateboards -- in a place where it snowed, for crissakes -- we'd pore over those pages. We thrilled to the pictures and the words that transported us from a place no Z-Boy had even heard of to the sunny skies, empty backyard pools and complex asphalt terrains of Southern California, ground zero of the developing skateboarding phenomenon. We were inspired -- forming our own version of the Zephyr Skate team among our Northwest Spokane neighborhood buddies, adopting many of the same moves, outlaw attitudes and lust for radical terrain as our heroes from Santa Monica (aka Dogtown) whom we mythologized beyond all reason. And so there is absolutely no way I can be objective when writing about anything involving the Z-Boys and the story of how they gave birth to extreme sports. So that's my disclaimer.
That said, The Lords of Dogtown does more than a serviceable job relating the tale. It's a fictionalized account that follows roughly the same line as director Stacey Peralta's excellent, award-winning 2001 documentary, Dogtown & amp; Z-Boys. In both films, Peralta (one of the original Z-Boys) recalls the rise and fall of the legendary 1970s Zephyr skateboarding team, a group of delinquent but wildly talented and ballsy young surfers who ushered in the modern age of skateboarding from their home turf of Santa Monica and Venice Beach, Calif., in 1975.
Lords delves into places only hinted at in the documentary, into the personal lives and personal dramas of the three main players -- surfer-skaters Peralta (John Robinson), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) -- and their mentor, co-owner of the Zephyr Surf Shop, Skip Engblom (portrayed in a highly stylized fashion by Heath Ledger). Careful direction by Peralta keeps things in the real. Here, Venice Beach truly looks like the hellhole it was in the '70s, and the boys' lives look anything but glamorous (most came from broken homes and poor economic conditions). All they had was surfing, skating and the camaraderie of their fellow Z-Boys. And as the film so acutely relates, those bonds would undergo enormous strains as the team's notoriety grew, bringing with it money, fame and all manner of opportunities for self-exploitation. There are moments of humor, too (a funny clip involves skateboarding pro Tony Hawk in a cameo as an astronaut giving Peralta's board a try).
Though I still much prefer the documentary version, The Lords of Dogtown's gritty backstory, casting of leads (dead ringers for Alva, Adams) and production design (eerily precise in nailing the look of '70s So Cal surf culture) lend it an air of authenticity rarely experienced in fiction. It might be tough for some viewers (especially adults) to get beneath the tough-guy attitudes, petty cruelties and minor crimes of the characters and into the desperate passions that fueled them. But for skateboarders -- especially for those with a reverence for history -- it's a must-see. Rated: PG-13.