Hollywood & Halfpipes

Rick McCrank in 2009’s “Machotaildrop”

You can always rely on Hollywood to tap into something that’s popular and shoehorn it into a movie, and skateboarding is no exception. Like most other mainstream avenues, Hollywood has tried and failed to co-opt skateboarding multiple times, with the number of good, or successful, movies counted on one hand. So join me as I dive into the world of skateboarding movies. 

For this article I’ve intentionally chosen not to include documentaries or legitimate skate videos that were given a theatrical or streaming platform release. Many of those movies are made by actual skateboarders, or come with an understanding of the history of skateboarding. What I’ll be concentrating on mostly here will be fictional or dramatised stories. 

I think the problem with many sports movies, especially ones about skateboarding, is they get so hung up on the stereotypical image of the sport they are portraying, that they forget a film is meant to be about the characters. From my experience the skateboarding gimmick is played up to hide a formulaic, undercooked plot, and this is usually in hopes that skateboarders will come and see the film regardless of quality. 

For example, 1978’s “Skateboard: The Movie” clumsily inserts skateboarding into a wacky “get rich quick” plot. 2003’s “Grind” is a teen road trip movie (derivative of other teen comedy films of the time such as the obviously named “Road Trip”) and revolves around a Cross Country Road trip to get noticed, sponsored and paid to skateboard. These movies are copy and pasted from other similar movies of the time, just with a skateboard awkwardly inserted into the plot. 

1980’s “Skateboard Madness” is another wacky comedy about a photographer who has to write a story about skateboarding to save his job. Featuring real life skateboarders such as Stacey Peralta and Alan Gelfand (inventor of the ollie!), the film at least has some legitimate links to skateboarding, even if it isn’t a film with much substance. It can be mostly summed up as a skate video with a very loose plot. 

Movies at this end of the scale also tend to view skateboarding not as a backdrop for human interaction and a tool for social bonding, but as a means to success. The skateboard is shown as the thing that will make the characters’ dreams come true: to get rich, to be the best, and to overcome the obstacles in their life. These surface level summations of what drives a skateboarder are ultimately why they fail – real, grass roots skateboarders don’t give a shit about winning competitions and being the best, they just want to have fun on a skateboard. 

There is only one movie I know of that can get away with the stereotypical “sports movie” plot, and that is 2005’s “Lords Of Dogtown”. A dramatised version of the also excellent “Dogtown & Z-Boys” documentary, the film shows a group of surfers who radically changed skateboarding for the better – succeeding as pioneers in a brand new “sport”. The film succeeds because it focuses on the family dynamic of its core characters rather than the success they may gain from riding a skateboard. 

It helps immensely that this story is based on skateboarding history. Seeing skateboarding legends like Stacey Peralta, Tony Alva and Jay Adams portrayed on the big screen and getting a sense for what they were like in those early days of skateboarding was incredibly appealing to someone like me. The film-makers really treated this story with care (with Peralta being involved with the story and script), and the actors learnt just enough about skateboarding to come across as authentic (an area that many other skateboarding movies fall down in massively). Director Catherine Hardwicke has proven herself to be a master of telling stories about teenagers and this proved to be an overwhelming strength in Lords of Dogtown.

Whilst the involvement of real skateboarding legends helped Lords of Dogtown, it was a formula that could not be repeated by 2009’s “Street Dreams”. Co-written by Rob Dyrdek, and starring a host of real life professional skateboarders (with Paul Rodriguez as the protagonist), the film is a mediocre stereotypical sports movie, about someone using skateboarding to achieve success, money and fame. The crux of the plot revolves around Rodriguez’s character making bad life decisions and everyone repeatedly giving him shit for it.

“Street Dreams” fails due to soap opera style acting and a fairly boring representation of the skateboard world. In stark, beautiful contrast, is “MachoTailDrop” – released the same year as “Street Dreams”, and again starring real life skateboarders like Rick McCrank and John Rattray. It has a quirky, dream like quality to it, and could easily be mistaken for a Wes Anderson film. It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Thrasher Magazine, and it’s refreshing to see something so wonderfully weird and wondrous, whilst still retaining an authentic link to skateboarding. None of the inner workings of the skateboard industry shown in the movie matches real life, but the film knows this and uses it in a comical way to serve it’s story and characters.

Travelling further into the bizarre, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a 2014 horror movie about a female skateboarding vampire who preys on sleazebag men. Described as the “first iranian vampire western”, it has a ton of style, although the skateboarding is not the focus of the movie at all. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night begins to dig into extremely niche indie territory, but unintentionally gives the perception of women on skateboards being somewhat otherworldly and unusual – an idea that only 7 years later may be a little outdated.

If A Girl Walks Alone at Night plays up the female skateboarder as unique and otherworldly, 2018’s Skate Kitchen does the opposite – showing them as an authentic part of skateboarding. This semi-autobiographical movie about the titular crew of women shows them coming together in New York, and like some of the best skateboarding movies, explores the complicated relationships between young people bound together by a shared love of skateboarding. 

Many considered “Gleaming The Cube” to be the height of skateboarding cinema back in 1989. An action thriller starring Christian Slater – the movie plays up the skateboarding, but the core of the film revolves around a murder mystery. Tony Hawk, Mike McGill and Rodney Mullen were all involved in this movie, acting as stunt doubles for Slater. You can spot where each skater appears, most notable because the main character’s stance changes depending on whether Hawk or McGill were doubling for Slater. Whilst not the best in 1980’s cinema, it remains a classic for many skaters of the era. 

Similarly, Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” is an excellent thriller about a teenager who accidentally kills a security guard with his board. The film uses the legendary Burnside as it’s eponymous skatepark, adding huge credibility to the movie. Despite its credibility and heavy focus on one of skateboarding’s best skateparks, “Paranoid Park” is a movie about young people learning about consequences, and the coming of age caused by them.

1995’s Kids, directed by Larry Clark and written by real life skateboarder Harmony Korine, was long held up as the best skateboarding movie. Again, the movie isn’t really about skateboarding, but about teenagers discovering the impact of sexually transmitted diseases. The movie’s characters, especially the boys, are portrayed unfavourably, and whilst the skateboarding is purely a backdrop for the story, the personas in the film are uncomfortably close to home. Late real life pro skateboarder Harold Hunter was famously cast in this film, which adds legitimacy to the story and probably adds to the feeling that this is, first and foremost, a film made by skateboarders.

Kids has many parallels to 2018’s “Mid-90’s”, directed by Jonah Hill. Hill grew up in skate crews in L.A, having worked at the Hot Rod Skateshop, so the movie is semi-autobiographical. The movie features skateboarding heavily, but again, this isn’t really a film about skateboarding, but more so about the gradual breakdown of a brotherhood of young men. A crew of older skaters, who mentor the protagonist, Stevie, begin to see the dynamic of their friendship change as their lives reach a major turning point. 

The personas on show, again, are so spot on compared to how many real life skateboarders behave: we all know those guys who end up concentrating on getting fucked up and high, rather than skating, and we all know those guys who are super career focussed, who want sponsorship and have the talent to get it. Being skateboarders is not the sole character trait of any one of these characters, and Hill smartly weaves his skateboarding knowledge in and out of a story about what it means to be an outcast teenage boy who just wants to belong. Many similarities can be drawn with “Skate Kitchen”, although each film shows perspectives from male and female skateboarders respectively.

Whilst most skateboarding films offer a view of the world through teen eyes, 2012’s “Veer!” offers up a fresh perspective. Focusing on an older, washed up pro skater who is forced to move in with his grandmother, the movie once again uses skateboarding as a secondary theme, and concentrates on the titular character, flaws and all, first and foremost. The film is about taking responsibility for your own future, getting control of your life, and those who support us. This is skateboarding used in a more subtle way, probably similar in tone to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (a film that wasn’t really about wrestling, but about a central character and their effect on the world around them).

The list of films featuring everyone’s favourite useless wooden toy go on and on. I could talk about Freddy Got Fingered, with it’s bizarre main character played by Tom Green (who, somehow, ended up getting sponsored by Birdhouse despite being a complete goofball). I could mention the completely awful cash-in attempts such as MVP: Most Vertical Primate, which appeal to the lowest common denominator. I could go even further and detail films where skateboards, or pro skateboarders, are briefly used in completely bizarre ways – such as Mumford, where Jason Lee plays a billionaire playboy with a skatepark in his garden (that he skates in one scene… this is literally the only reason I bought the film on DVD). 

I could talk about how Peter Parker was made to be a skateboarder in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-man. I could talk about how Kate Pierce, the protagonist of 2018’s “The Christmas Chronicles”, wants a Powell Peralta skateboard for Christmas. Looking at how Hollywood has used skateboards in movies is a rabbit hole you could truly get lost in – and I very much did so in this article. So, for now, I’ll leave it there and wrap things up.

I think the reason why skateboarding movies resonate with us, is because when they are great movies, we can relate to the characters and their experiences skateboarding so much. Even still, when these movies are best in class, they transcend whether you are a skateboarder or not, and open up connections with fellow human beings. When storytellers use skateboarding as a tool in their films, they do so, perhaps unintentionally, with the baggage of a protective, aloof and skeptical subculture. 

But, as skateboarding has grown, I think Hollywood’s understanding of it has also grown: most of the films covered here are from this century, and most of these newer films broach a wider gamut of themes. Perhaps this is proof that skateboarding is growing up, or I would like to think skateboarders are now more understood than they were back in the seventies.

I think what is obvious, though, is the variety of styles and approaches to conveying skateboarding in these films matches the wide swath of styles of skateboarder – everything from heist movies, to mainstream teen comedies, to intimate and understated independent films, to wonderous dream-like adventures. This range of styles and genres perhaps echoes skateboarding’s own refusal to be pigeon-holed as art, sport, play or anti-social behaviour – and in that respect, it’s probably the one thing all of these movies collectively excel at.

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