It's easy to relate to Stacey Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary chronicling the birth of skateboarding as a hobby, sport, and phenomenon. Like any average Joe at a high school reunion, telling tales of the good ol' days running with a group of incredible, fondly-remembered personalities (and attendant exploits), Peralta's energetic nostalgia is infectious. Plus, he's got the footage to back it up. Because Peralta's well-documented crew--the one-time "Z-Boys" of the Zephyr Skating Team--shot to fame in the mid-70s, and writer-photographer Craig Stecyk was there.
Stecyk--a co-founder of the Jeff Ho & Zephyr Productions Surf Shop where it all started--collaborated with Peralta on the screenplay of the film, which came into existence as a direct result of Hollywood calling Peralta for the screen rights to his life. Fearing a distorted narrative, Peralta held out and told the story his way (and soon will again, in dramatized format, if Variety is to be believed).
This filmic snapshot of a place, time, and culture details the quick ascension of skateboarding--once considered a mere "street surfing" fad, but eventually an equally powerful sporting phenomenon--in its Southern California birthplace (dubbed "Dogtown," a.k.a. Santa Monica and Venice). Embedded in the real-life fable (of lost boys and pleasure islands) are the skill, devotion, and euphoria inherent in serious pursuit of the sport, and the exceptional cases of the Z-Boys, who managed to drift into separate, mostly lucrative skating careers while still obsessively skating together in primo locales. Peralta clearly and concisely makes the connection between surfing and the development of skateboarding (often overlapping surf and skate footage to show the evolution of particular moves from the ocean to concrete), and he gives a taste of the personalities--both twentysomethings and teens--who, Peralta convincingly argues, sparked the skateboarding craze as it survives today (the film can't help but gently mock the more formal competitive skating style, which is now apparently extinct).
The Z-Boys developed their skills in drought-drained L.A. pools, and plenty of impressive footage survives of their illicit and, eventually, condoned pool practices. Peralta and Stecyk ingeniously make photos come to life, as well, using whip pans, zooms, flipbook and jittering frames, and strobe effects. The resulting array of moves may be enough to convince even some of the jaded that skateboarding is not a crime (though the inchoate Z-Boys relentlessly trespassed), but an exhibition sport. These skaters move with surprising speed, and the stunts have lost little of their jaw-dropping value, even in the days of Tony Hawk (who gives props here). Remarkably, Peralta gets excellent participation in modern-day interviews, as the boys (and Z-Girl Peggy Oki) look back. Narrator Sean Penn--who, in real life, found inspiration in the Z-Boys--is a fitting choice, and Peralta stays true to his seams-showing style by leaving interviewer laughter--and Penn's own throat-clearing--on the soundtrack.
The downside to Peralta's insider approach is that he runs the risk of overdoing the self-congratulation. It's always awkward when the documentarian is reporting, unequivocally, his or her own life story, and Peralta is interviewed extensively on camera. Though he tells the "history" well, most of the biographical sketches remain elliptical (in one glaring omission, a huge scar looms on the head of prime character Jay Adams, though we never learn if he got it in an empty pool or prison). As a blend of shreddin' skate video and serious documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys is a lively diversion.