It may seem a bit strange for a filmmaker to make a wildly heralded documentary about his youth, only to then write a screenplay about the exact same subject matter and get it produced. Such is the legacy of Lords of Dogtown, the dramatized version of Stacy Peralta’s life… just as he already documented in the award-winning Dogtown and Z-Boys.
Stacy Peralta’s life is an enviable one. Venice Beach in the 70’s it was very much a beach slum with an old Coney Island-like amusement park lying dead on its shore, providing one of the most dangerous surfing spots in the world. Growing up there, Peralta and his buddies Tony Alva and Jay Adams became skateboard professionals after being sponsored by a local surf shop (Zephyr Surf – thus Z-Boys), that began manufacturing the first skateboards with polyurethane wheels. Big deal, you say. Well, the introduction of those wheels was for skateboarding, the equivalent to the rubber tire for automobiles. After this, everything exploded and the characters instantly became the biggest names in a multimillion dollar business. The film documents their success and how each dealt with their sudden stardom.
Anyone who has seen Z-Boys knows all this. So what makes Lords different? The one thing Lords has that Z-Boys doesn’t is characterization. Perhaps Peralta studied his documentary very carefully and saw holes in it where others didn’t. Through a series of interviews, photos and narration, it is perhaps hard to fathom the inner motives of these kids that revolutionized a sport and took it from handstands on plastic boards with clay wheels, to grabbing air out of drained swimming pools. All this might sound completely uninteresting to those not interested in the history of skateboarding, but it should be noted that Lords is much less grounded in the specifics of the founding of the sport than the documentary was.
Make no mistake, director Catherine Hardwicke, (furthering her debut, Thirteen, as an auteur of gritty realistic adolescence) did not just go out and hire professional skaters and expect them to act. It happened the other way around. As good as the actors are in the bowl, they are even better baring their souls on the screen. John Robinson as Peralta gives perhaps the most nuanced performance here, playing the straight, responsible kid. While we never get the sense of how or why he became the single greatest influence on modern day skating, we nevertheless understand he is the one with the vision, who seeks a life of significance. It can be forgiven that we do not go much further than that because the other characters are so deeply complex. To be fair to Peralta, most writers would find it hard to analyze themselves any deeper than this without creating a fictional self and Peralta should be credited for neither going the humble god route and diminishing his greatness, nor overstating his significance among the seminal Z-Boys.
Alva is played with sensational star charm by Victor Rasuk, who truly shows how far charisma and coolness can take one in this world. Alva is the hotshot, whose looking to make a name for himself, more as an escape route from his abusive father than for sheer ego. But the standout performance here is Emile Hirsch, playing the unsung skateboard god Jay Adams. Adams has demons driving him to his greatness, but it is those same demons that force him to ultimately succumb to his hardcore nature (a great scene of him discovering hardcore punk at an early Black Flag show speaks volumes). He is the only one of the three that ultimately does not sell out. He is, also, the only one of the three to never profit greatly from his incredible skill. He is true to his heart and spirit and this is, ultimately, played more through his eyes than any lines of dialogue. It is an Oscar-caliber performance that will, no doubt, go critically unrecognized in such a film as this.
As a document of history, this film will, no doubt, have the same fate as Dazed and Confused, with its cult growing through the years and its stars becoming monstrous Hollywood talents. It will probably serve as their career-best performances, as Dazed did for its cast. Nowhere is this more foreshadowed than in Heath Ledger’s performance as Skip Engblom, the owner of Zephyr Skate/Surfboards. Ledger proves he has the acting chops to keep his career rolling for at least a few more decades, seemingly channeling Val Kilmer’s talent to deliver a pitch perfect performance as a beach burnout mentor to the kids. A guy directionless in life until his Z-Boys come to life, but without the vision, drive and maybe desire to keep them, and his own company, as anything more than cult phenoms.
Anyone who knows the slightest thing about skateboarding will not deny Peralta’s greatness or his incredible contributions to the sport. As such, surface logic might say he would have been a better choice as director. But ultimately, it takes a director such as Hardwicke to use a third-party perspective to probe the inner workings and compulsions of this group of kids that Peralta belonged to. The film serves as the premier document of a time, place and an era that led to a radical shift in our society, more so than the documentary did. While Z-Boys was an engrossing learning experience, this film is more just an experience. It perfectly captures the look, the thoughts and the attitudes that led corporate America to market every teenage product they have as “extreme.”