Dog Days: A Review of Lords of Dogtown

A long time ago, in a decade far far away, during a time called the 70s, skateboarding made a hyperspace jump in technology and technique from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. Until the early 70s, skateboarders rolled on wheels made of clay, and they were Flintstones technology because they looked like the stone wheels on Fred and Wilma’s car, and when you hit Pebbles, you went Bam! Bam! Clay wheels were bad, and limited skaters to minor things – spinning 360s, headstands, blah. In the early 70s, Frank Nasworthy began tinkering with urethane wheels, and changed the skateboard world with wheels that whirred like a Jetsons-mobile, allowing skaters to go vertical and defy gravity.

That technological jump is the foundation for Lords of Dogtown. Without urethane wheels there would have been no revolution, no Bertlemann-esque carves, no carving over the light and onto the coping in swimming pools. Without urethane, Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta and the rest of the Z Boys would have been slightly-frustrated 70s surf stars. They might have made names for themselves in the surfing world, but probably not, because they were from Los Angeles – from Santa Monica/Venice – and that place in the 70s was a hard place to make it as a surf star. Urethane allowed these guys to change the world of skateboarding, to roll over the cracks in their lives and onto fame and bigger things.

Stacy Peralta wrote the screenplay for Lords of Dogtown, but he considers it “ a stand alone movie” and not a direct spinoff of the 2001 documentary he made with Craig Stecyk, Dogtown and Z Boys. In a recent interview, Peralta promised a “major soundtrack” and Lords of Dogtown delivers right off the bat with Jimi Hendrix. To the sounds of Voodoo Chile, three teenaged surfers wake up before dawn, grab their surfboards and their skates and go bombing through the streets and alleys of Venice – committing petty vandalisms and risking their necks to go risk their necks surfing among the jagged pilings of The Cove at the P.O.P Pier. The intro is cool. The music is perfect and the street skating is pretty damned hot, considering they’re still doing it on clay wheels.

As Lords of Dogtown begins, Jay Adams, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta are among a loose affiliation of teenaged surf/skate rats who come from cracking or broken homes. They all live in the alleys of Venice, sometimes go to school, Peralta has a job but mostly they hang out at the Zephyr Surf Shop, overseen/abused/tormented by a crusty group of older gentlemen lead by shaper/entrepreneur Skip Engblom with his henchmen Craig Stecyk and Chino.

Stacy Peralta is the Galahad of the trio, portrayed by a blonde-haired, apple-cheeked actor named John Robinson who could have been one of the fair-haired Elves in Lord of the Rings. Of the three, Peralta is the least-troubled and most level-headed – the whitest. He sneaks out of the window, and makes way to the beach on his bike without risking his life or breaking laws.

Not so for the other two. Jay Adams grabs a surfboard from the bedroom of his mother, who is there in bed with a Vietnam Vet and we never figure out if that is Jay’s dad, or a boyfriend. Jay grabs a board and his skate, leaps a huge ledge to get to street level and then performs various acts of vandalism through the alleys of Dogtown, down to the beach.

On his way out of the house, Tony Alva is confronted by his dad, a Cuban, who orders Tony to go to school that day, or someday wind up a ditch-digger. Alva makes his way to the beach on his skate, shooting Bicknell Hill by timing a green light to a fraction of a second. He survives the cars only to hit a pebble and go down hard, because these guys are still on clay wheels.

There is a lot of eating shit in this movie, both on land and sea. On land, the skaters are eating shit because of those accursed clay wheels. At sea, Adams, Alva and Peralta are the groms at the P.O.P Pier, sometimes allowed to surf by Skip Engblom and friends. The Cove is a spot surrounded by the skeleton of the Pacific Ocean Park pier, and the surfers also do some eating shit there, smacking into pilings and risking impalement on what lurks beneath.

In the opening sequence a character named Chino tries to shoot the Pier and hits a piling and that is our own Brock Little doing something that looked like it hurt, because it did. The surfing is very accurate to the time – guys with bushy bushy blonde hairdos in Body Glove and O’Neill beavertail wetsuits struggling with shitty surfboards, smoking pot between sessions and vibing Vals and other interlopers.

Although urethane wheels had been around since the early 70s, for the purpose of Lords of Dogtown, it was the summer of 1975 that the wheels made it to Santa Monica/Venice. They are beautiful things – young surfer/skaters hold them in their hands like giant diamonds, and they glow like the bar of wax in the Five Summer Stories poster. “They grip!” is the buzzword about these wheels, and the skaters feverishly remove that Flintstones technology, screw on the Jetsons and go immediately to a place that was Valhalla in the middle 70s: Paul Revere Middle School.

Located along Dead Man’s Curve on Sunset Boulevard the playground at Paul Revere was designed by geniuses who could not have foreseen the Urethane Revolution. They just happened to unintentionally pave all the playground berms in such a way that Paul Revere was the perfect, sloping concrete wave – from double overhead down to two inches. “It was basically Disneyland for skateboarding because of the varied selection of banked walls,” Peralta told me. “ Nothing like it anywhere else in the world.”

It’s at Paul Revere that the Z Boys understand the potential of urethane wheels, and it is there they band together and begin to fall apart.

At the cast and crew showing for Lords of Dogtown in Westwood about a week before the movie went nationwide, Nathan Pratt came out of the showing teary-eyed- because that was his era and his life and his friends up on the Silver Screen. Pratt agreed that the actors somehow nailed portrayals of people who were young before the actors were born, but he also said the skateboarding was “a little weak” at times.

There is street skating, bank skating, pool skating and competitive skating on ramps in Lords of Dogtown. The street skating is done for transportation, mischief and fun-charging through traffic, towing behind buses, doing roller-coasters off parked cars. The ramp skating is done at contests for profit and glory, but the pool skating is the best of all. In 1975 a drought forced all Californians to conserve water. They had to think twice before flushing (if it’s yellow then it’s mellow if it’s brown, flush it down) and swimming pools were emptied by order of law. The timing was perfect, as urethane wheels made anything possible, and the Dogtown boys found a Mentawais archipelago of skateable pools from Brentwood to Palos Verdes.

Lords of Dogtown nails this part. The pools are as blue and smooth and virginal as a perfect wave, and Adams, Peralta and Alva show how pool skating progressed, from eating shit over and over and over and over and over again, to getting over the light, to hitting coping, to going up and out.

The pool skating is the best skating in the movie, and it looks like the three actors who played Adams, Alva and Peralta did a lot of their own skating, and were getting over the light without Special Effects or doubles.

The actors did a good job of skating, but a better job of acting. John Robinson is from Oregon, Victor Rasuk is from Harlem and Emile Hirsch is from Topanga Canyon. Prior to Lords of Dogtown, they hadn’t done much, but director Catherine Hardwicke and the producers did a good job of picking those three out of what must have been thousands of wannabes.

Emile Hirsch looks nothing like Jay Adams in real life, but he is believable as Jay Adams making a kind of Darth Vader transformation from sweet, long-blonde-haired kid to shaved, tattooed Vato in a blue bandana.

It takes a while to recognize Rebecca de Mornay as Jay’s mom Philaine, and Heath Ledger seems to be channeling Val Kilmer with Dennis Hopper to relive Skip Engblom – owner of Zephyr Surf Shop and the fractured father figure to all the Z Boys. By all accounts – from Nathan Pratt and Allen Sarlo and Stacy Peralta and others who knew Skipper and know Skipper and loved him then and love him now – Heath Ledger in his prosthetic teeth nails the Skip Engblom part – warts and all.

They used David Bowie on the major soundtrack but it wasn’t Fame or even better, Transition, because transition is what Lords of Dogtown is all about. Skip Engblom sees the market potential in skateboarding and forms a team which excludes Peralta at first. They travel to Del Mar to compete in a contest, and Peralta wows them by sliding some Bertlemann turns and finishing off with five 360s. For that performance Peralta gets the coveted blue Zephyr t-shirt and it’s all for one and one for all.

But this is the 70s, the Z Boyz are teenagers, from middle class to poor families and by mid-summer, money and ego and pride and the other Seven Deadly Sins begin to tempt them.

Success is all a big test of their friendship and they all essentially fail, as they all bail out on Skip and wind up on different teams, competing against each other. Stacy Peralta starts skating for G and S, Jay Adams is sponsored by some coke dealers trying to go legit, and Tony Alva shows up at skate contests in a helmet and one-piece suit like Evel Knievel.

Where it was one for all and all for one, now it’s all for me.

Their friendship and loyalties are torn asunder by the pressures of fame and growing up, but in the end, Lords of Dogtown brings the friends back together to rally around one of their own – who is dying in style: His nanny brings him endless joints to ease the pain, and his father has drained the pool so he can be with his friends. The ending is just about perfect – sentimental without being corny – and probably why Nathan Pratt was teary-eyed as he was walking out.

Lords of Dogtown is based on a true story, but takes liberties with how it really was. Characters who were deeply involved in the whole scene are left out entirely – Allen Sarlo, Nathan Pratt and Jeff Ho – and others are consolidated. No one punched anyone at the Del Mar skate contest, and Tony Alva was not slugged by a competitor at the big contest that ends the event. There isn’t really any credit given to the Hawaiians and other surfers who inspired that kind of skating.

But for the most part, Lords of Dogtown rings true – Stacy Peralta wrote a screenplay from his own experience, which was brought to reality by the producers Stu and John Linson, director Catherine Hardwicke. If you were around in the middle 70s, Lords of Dogtown will make you all nostalgic and possibly weepy and remind you how lucky you were to be a surfer/skater then, when plastics, Benjamin made it possible for sidewalk surfers to do the tricks the surfers were doing. And if you weren’t around in the 70s, well, you’re living in the afterglow of a time when technology changed skateboarding, and in turn, down the line, changed surfing, because the continuation of Lords of Dogtown is that skaters went above the coping and off the top of the ramp and through the 80s, surfers could do the tricks the skaters did, and changed everything.