Dogtown & Z-Boys
directed by Stacy Peralta
(Sony, 2001)

In the early 1960s, the sight of an abandoned amusement park wasting away on the prairie inspired director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford to make Carnival of Souls, a low-budget fright-phenom that's never lost its hold on horror-film fans.

A few years later, a crumbling amusement park on a pier near Venice, Calif., inspired a ragtag band from the hardscrabble side of Santa Monica to revolutionize the fledgling sport of skateboarding. And now, thanks to one of their own, that group now has a movie bio of its own: Dogtown & Z-Boys. And such a story it tells.

It begins with a bunch of kids, barely teenagers, who hung out in Santa Monica's Zephyr surf shop, a grossly undercapitalized enterprise specializing in custom-made boards, run by a couple of guys who weren't much more than teens themselves.

Given their 'druthers, they'd have spent all day surfing through the pylons of the abandoned amusement park near the shop. But the wind blew out the waves around 10 a.m., so they turned in their surfboards for skateboards.

What they did on those skateboards, though, was unlike anything anybody else was doing with skateboards in those days.

That's made undeniably clear in the reams and reams of home-movie footage used by director Stacy Peralta -- himself a former Z-Boy -- and the stacks of still photos shot by Craig Stecyk, a Zephyr shop founder and photo journalist who documented much of the Z-Boys' early efforts for '70s skateboarding magazines.

To hammer home his point, Peralta crosscuts the images with interviews with fellow Z-Boys and the surf shop owners themselves, creating a rich blend of fact and feeling that's hard not to get pulled into.

All in all, they're a well-spoken bunch, full of stories laced with insights into a time when technology was changing the world faster than even Marshall McCluhan could predict, and a hard-knocks kid from a broken home in Santa Monica could become a millionaire globe-trotting icon-entrepreneur almost overnight.

But the real fun, of course, is the stories, told by the Z-Boys and shown in the reels of stock footage. Peralta shows how the Z-Boys' discovery of the asphalt-filled basins between southern California's schoolyards turned them into impromptu skating bowls. Later, the decade's worst drought inspired the Z-Boys to begin skating in backyard pools, inadvertently leading to vertical skating and the invention of the half-pipe.

"Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential, but it was the minds of 11-year-olds that could see that potential," Craig Stecyk wrote in 1975.

Underscoring those profound changes is the musical score, lovingly assembled by Peralta and Paul Crowder. Stock footage of '50s-style family-types wading in the water or squeaky-clean suburbanite "bleach boys" on boards is invariably accompanied by Bobby Darin singing "Volare" or Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass belching out "A Taste of Honey." The Z-Boys get a tuneful hand from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and the Buzzcocks, to name a few.

So Peralta, with the help of narrator Sean Penn, brings it all home: the sights, sounds and sense impressions that make up this thing we call history. "The bottom line was all we wanted to do was skate," former Z-Boy Wentzle Ruml recalls. Amazing what you can accomplish when all you want to do is skate.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 31 May 2003

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