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Sundance Review: Stacy Peralta's 'Bones Brigade: An Autobiography'
'Dogtown and Z-Boys' follow-up chronicles Tony Hawk and other '80s stars
It's been over a decade since skateboarding pioneer Stacy Peralta brought his partially autobiographic documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys" to the Sundance Film Festival and walked away with an Audience Award and a prize for his direction.
Since then, Peralta has successfully chronicled big wave surfers in "Riding Giants" and street gangs in "Crips and Bloods: Made in America," proving himself to be more than just a one-trick pony as a documentarian, but rather an astute chronicler of men who live extreme lives on the fringes of the mainstream.
Peralta returned to Sundance on Saturday (January 21) night for the world premiere of "Bones Brigade: An Autobiography," which isn't exactly a sequel to "Dogtown and Z-Boys," but still follows the next chapter in the filmmaker's life, as well as the next chapter in the history of skateboarding as an athletic pursuit and an art form.
As he did on "Dogtown and Z-Boys," Peralta is making a film about himself and about the people who were closest to him, but as was the case with the earlier film, proximity yields refreshing honesty and candidness rather than a self-aggrandizing puff piece. The skaters featured in "Bones Brigade," several so legendary that even I've heard of them, see no purpose in being coy or precious with their memories and reputations.
For purposes of honesty, it helps that the story being told in "Bones Brigade" is almost unnervingly functional. Nobody really has all that much to cover up or be ashamed of and the subjects of the documentary are practically competing to distribute the highest compliments.
As you might imagine, all of that admiration and respect isn't always so great for drama and "Bones Brigade" lacks even the traditional spiral of egos that pushed "Dogtown and Z-Boys" to its conclusion. In the place of stakes and tension, Peralta gives us a cast of at least a dozen colorful and often hilarious characters, plus a seemingly bottomless treasure trove of period footage. That was more than enough for this viewer whose interest in the skateboarding milieu is minimal at best.
More after the break...
"Dogtown and Z-Boys" focused on the birth of swimming pool skate culture and the rise and fall of the Zephyr skate team, particularly early stars like Peralta and Tony Alva.
In "Bones Brigade," we pick up in the early '80s and Peralta already looking for new career avenues in his early twenties. Deciding he wants to be a coach and mentor rather than a star, Peralta joined forces with skateboard designer and manufacturer George Powell on the Powell Peralta team. Their goal? To sign up a group of unproven young skateboarders -- later dubbed "Bones Brigade" by photographer Craig Stecyk -- and turn them into the future of the sport.
Among the people on the team? Alan Gelfand. You might know him as the inventor of the ollie. Mike McGill. You might know him as the inventor of the McTwist. And Tony Hawk. You might know him as Tony freakin' Hawk. The Bones Brigade had six core members and at least 30 satellite members and they weathered the decline of the first wave of skateboard culture and helped push the sport in its current direction, leaving it more popular than ever before.
While that Peralta/Alva generation of skaters had a competitiveness that was both fruitful and also toxic, "Bones Brigade" argues that these new youthful skaters were constantly motivating and inspiring each other to push the edge of the envelope and the boundaries of balance and gravity.
The film opens with each of the core Brigade skaters explaining what drew them to the pastime, practically forming a recruitment video with their stories of finding a place in the world in which they were no longer outsiders and in which they could express themselves.
The subjects are a fascinating lot.
I knew basic things about Tony Hawk, but I didn't have a sense of how and why he was hated by fellow skateboarders when he first hit the scene. In great detail, Peralta is able to explore the compulsions that forced Hawk to stockpile new tricks and to advance his technical wizardry, illustrating Hawk's rivalry with his skating opposite Christian Hosoi.
While they're presented as kindred spirits within the Brigade, Hawk seems composed and at ease compared to freestyle mastermind Rodney Mullen, whose crippling self-consciousness and obvious genius makes him a captivatingly twitchy interview subject. Mullen's perfectionism and compulsive dedication to his craft are only the tip of a psychologically complex iceberg that includes issues with his father that might take a whole additional film to unpack.
Self-effacing clown prince Lance Mountain, rambling-yet-brilliant Stecyk and a number of familiar faces from "Dogtown and Z-Boys" also make appearances. And Peralta remains endlessly affable, though I'm becoming more and more convinced that he may just be a character played by either Jeff Daniels or Dave Coulier.
"Bones Brigade" also features cameos from the likes of Shepard Fairey, Ben Harper and Fred Durst, whose every appearance earned loud and vocal derision from the premiere night crowd.
The interviews are all shot in a warehouse decorated with skating memorabilia and the subjects are uniformly animated, cracking jokes, telling stories and remembering one story after another.
Because of Stecyk and Glen E. Friedman and many other photographers and videographers, the Bones Brigade was documented to a degree that even exceeds what one might expect in our current media-saturated age. Whenever a talking head mentions a specific competition, it's a guarantee that editor Josh Altman will be able to reach into the vault and find footage. Altman also has the daunting task of illustrating the torrent of skating jargon discussed by the subjects. This is a world with its own vernacular and an ever-expanding catalogue of skill-sets that are hard to appreciate if you weren't raised on Bones Brigade videos and X Games highlights, but Peralta and Altman make sure that the language is understandable. For a brief moment after watching "Bones Brigade" tonight, I could have explained to you how Gelfand's ollie led to Mullen's flatground ollie and how that, in turn, evolved into the street skateboarding culture that's still visible today.
And more than just making the language understandable, Peralta and Altman make it easy to find the feats impressive, even if you can't tell any of the maneuvers apart. And if that fails, "Bones Brigade" has no shortage of footage of people wiping out, plus unbearably hilarious clips and outtakes from the cult classic "The Search for Animal Chin."
As entertainment and suburban anthropology, "Bones Brigade" never falters, with a tremendous soundtrack smoothing over a few chronological rough patches. What's missing are the tragic twists we've been trained to expect from this genre. But nobody does drugs. Nobody resorts to a life of crime. Nobody's depression leads to a suicide attempt. Nobody complains about their finances. Tony Alva, who had a less wholesome team of competing skaters, mocks the Brigade as boy scouts, but Lance Mountain maintains that they were all just getting the rush they needed from their skating. He may be right, but without those signpost events, Peralta's movie glides along without act breaks or turning points. I can't say if that lack of ebb and flow means Peralta needed to use a sterner authorial hand or if that's the way events actually played out.
I don't know if Peralta's skateboarding life has a third act that he'll be able to document 10 years from now, but after two entertaining installments, I'd still be ready to watch it.