Dogtown and Z-Boys is a 2001 documentary about the revolutionary Zephyr skateboarding team of California in the mid-1970s, narrated by a stoned Sean Penn. I should say for legal reasons that Sean Penn was not necessarily stoned during the making of this or any other movie.
We’re taken through the exciting evolution of skateboarding and the unmistakable impact of the “Z-Boys” by writer, director and Z-Boy Stacy Peralta. His proximity to the subject not only grants us access to extensive interviews and footage of the Zephyr team, it also puts us right in the middle of a movement that feels radical and important. Really it’s just some skateboarders reminiscing about their childhood, but the manifest passion both in front of and behind the camera invokes at least some of the excitement that could only have been truly experienced then and there.
Like all good documentaries, no prior knowledge or even interest is required, as the nostalgic footage and stylish editing takes us energetically through the team’s brief history. Starting out as surfers on the derelict beaches of Santa Monica, the team skated to kill time when there were no waves left to surf. Thanks to a drought in Southern California, wealthy residents had to drain their swimming pools, and the Z-Boys skated straight in. It was in these empty pools that skateboarding was saved from the obscurity of 1960s frivolity, and reborn as a rebellious urban sport. Sorry I should stop saying what happens in the film, but my desire to tell everyone what happens is another sign of a good documentary.
At their best, documentaries offer insight that sometimes goes beyond the limited scope of their subject, and this is sports doc-making at its finest. As someone who finds sport about as interesting as an Elbow album, why do I find this film so appealing? Well, the music helps, thanks to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. But there’s also an element of social commentary that elevates the documentary above the back-slapping camaraderie of old friends remembering stuff. They were kids, as young as 14 and disadvantaged, spawning an entire subculture with their uncompromising attitude and style. Watching Dogtown and Z-Boys, one gets a thrilling impression of 12 friends shaping modern skateboarding on an international scale, all from the drained swimming pools of their hometown. But I’d still challenge any of them to a game of Tony Hawk: Underground.
A particularly interesting segment discusses skateboarders as “urban guerillas”, using the concrete landscape of capitalism as their playground. This anarchic appropriation of space is at the heart of the sport, which many of the interviewees call art, and is the philosophy that launched a swathe of urban sports, from BMX to Parkour. It’s this idea of “antisocial behaviour” as sport that makes skateboarding so enduring, the Z-Boys so legendary and this documentary so successful. Also highlighting the important role played by sports journalism, with C.R. Stecyk’s magazine articles and iconic photography attracting worldwide attention to the team, Dogtown and Z-Boys is one of the great modern sports documentaries, up there with Senna, The Crash Reel and… Cool Runnings.