Even if you weren’t a Taylor Steele fan in the 90s and 2000s, preferring instead, oh, say, the slapstick genius Tear Devils trilogy, or maybe The Kill series, or even the groovy Moonshine Conspiracy films, you certainly knew Taylor Steele’s videos. They played in the background at every surfer’s house party you visited. They ran on a loop on TVs hanging from surf shop walls on both coasts. They’re probably still playing on hot sauce-greased TVs in taco shops in San Diego today. Momentum, Steele’s 1992 groundbreaker, all twitchy action cuts peppered with pop punk music, defined surf videos for two decades and inspired you to try to and fail to surf like Shane Dorian, Benji Weatherly, Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, Ross Williams, Kelly Slater, et. al.
Somehow, without us realizing it, Momentum’s influence wandered outside our insular surf world circle and managed to draw the attention of non-surfer filmmakers, Mike and Jeff Zimbalist. The two brothers just debuted to the Tribeca Film Festival their new documentary about Steele’s film, and the lives of the surfers in it, called, The Momentum Generation. It raised our salt-encrusted eyebrows with surprise.
Directors who don’t even surf making a Momentum documentary? We were intrigued.
“Well, we surfed a little bit on vacation growing up, skateboarded, and were interested in the subcultures of those worlds,” Jeff said, over the phone from New York hours before the premiere when I asked: “Why this movie? Why Momentum? Why surf?”
“Delving into a semi-foreign culture is fascinating to us,” the brothers added.
Veterans of hard-hitting sports docs, the Zimbalists just looked at this group of influential surfers as any other crew of camaraderie-fueled athletes.
Their doc rotates around the Weatherly home on the North Shore, a sort of boarding house at the time for some of the very best surfers the world has ever seen. The doc covers the culture-shaping of the Momentum movie and Steele’s work in general, but, according to the directors (a screener hasn’t been made available yet), the real meat is the candid interviews sharing lessons learned, the emotional side of losing close friends Todd Chesser and Brock Little, and building families.
They recorded enough material to screen a three-hour film, by the way, according to Taylor Knox.
“We’re presented with lots of stories for possible projects,” Mike said. “This story had plenty of substance the more we dug into it. We knew it was doable right away.”
The film’s stars watched the movie for the first time in a private NY screening on Friday night, then with the whole Tribeca audience on Saturday.
What did they think?
“The [directors] absolutely killed it,” said Taylor Knox. “We were all very stoked about how it came out. It’s a leap of faith to have a movie like that made from people outside the surf industry, but it was refreshing. It needed to be made that way.”
The Zimbalists tore through every scrap of surf media that referenced the Momentum Generation, then sat the surfers down for hours of interviews, digging for stories that hadn’t yet been told. They had 600 pounds of videotapes shipped from Steele to their New York offices. No stone left unturned, etc.
“I learned so much about the rest of the guys, things I can’t believe I didn’t know,” Knox said. “For instance, I had no idea Shane’s dad had a bad injury from a car accident, and how that affected him. There was also a ton of footage from [Steele’s] movies that we’d never seen, lots of lifestyle stuff.”
“I was pulled aside after the film by regular moviegoers at the premier who didn’t know anything at all about surfing but wanted to talk because they were moved by the friendships and the emotions in the film,” Knox said.
The film, which was produced by Robert Redford, believe it or not, is now on the hunt for distribution. Once the rights are sold, dates for future screenings will be announced. In the meantime, check out the trailer below.