'Dogtown' Travels the Same Ramp

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005

Think of "Lords of Dogtown," a fictionalized account of the rise of skateboarding culture in late-1970s Venice, Calif., as a chewable vitamin. It's not bad for you, to be sure. It's even fun. But it's certainly less, um, hardcore than the real deal, which in this case is an excellent 2001 documentary called "Dogtown and Z-Boys," whose nutritional content "Lords" largely apes, with some dramatic license.

Now a lot of folks simply find certain things unpalatable -- documentaries, old black-and-white movies, foreign films -- and if it takes a Hollywood remake or a dramatization to get them to sit down and listen to the story, well, what're you gonna do?

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke of "Thirteen" fame, and written by Stacy Peralta, the skateboarder/surfer-turned-filmmaker who also directed and co-wrote the earlier film, "Lords of Dogtown" at least maintains the same manic, transgressive energy of the documentary, which, as Peralta notes on the commentary track of that film's DVD, was anything but "stuffy, methodical and slow." Like the wild, long-haired teenagers who are its subject, "Lords" is rude, aggressive and disrespectful of authority. It's dirty, loud, randy, obnoxious, destructive and at times clinically insane.

All of which is precisely what is best about the movie, whose shaky, hand-held camerawork gives it, ironically . . . a documentary feel.

What's not so great is the Hollywood-ification of the story. Although it follows the skateboarding facts pretty accurately -- the discovery of urethane wheels; the borrowing of skateboarding moves from surfing cut-backs; the California drought and the use of empty swimming pools as skate parks; and the professionalization of what had been a rebellious hobby into big business -- the emphasis on such melodrama as a love triangle and an increasingly sick kid (Michael Angarano) lend the film a soap-operatic quality it doesn't need.

At the center of the story are "Z-boys" Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) and Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), based on the real-life members of a skateboarding team sponsored by the local Zephyr surf shop and its deliciously addled proprietor, Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger). Against a backdrop of ever-more-mainstream skateboarding competitions, where the wave-based stylistic innovations of the Z-boys initially blew their fuddy-duddy competitors out of the water, so to speak, friendships that began on the streets of Dogtown (the slum-like section of Venice) slowly begin to unravel.

Tony goes after money, forgoing his old pals in favor of fancy clothes, cars and women offered by a Mephistophelean promoter (Johnny Knoxville). Jay steals Stacy's girlfriend ("Thirteen's" Nikki Reed), then loses his focus -- and natural athleticism -- to the temptations of gang life. Through it all, however, only Stacy remains steadfast. It is, I suppose the prerogative of the writer to make himself the hero, but at times the young Peralta comes across as a kind of adolescent Jesus in a sweatband: beautiful, blond, centered and slightly nerdlike.

For the inside skateboarding crowd, Hardwicke and Peralta scatter several cameo appearances by the characters' real-life counterparts and other skateboarding luminaries throughout the film. Peralta himself, for instance, has a walk-on playing the director of a "Charlie's Angels" episode in which he starred as a teen, and Tony Hawk, the skateboarding superstar who was subsequently discovered and promoted by Peralta after he left competitive skateboarding, plays an astronaut who falls off a skateboard. Cute stuff.

It's not that "Lords of Dogtown" isn't any good. It's fine and full of life.

It's just that, when interest first arose about making a movie about this story, after a 1999 article about the history of the Z-boys appeared in Spin magazine, Peralta says he wanted to make a documentary first that would get the story right. He did, and it's perfect in every way.

"Lords of Dogtown" isn't a cop-out, but rather an ever-so-slight concession to commercialism, while "Dogtown and Z-Boys" was, above all else, a love song to the counterculture.

LORDS OF DOGTOWN (PG-13, 105 minutes) -- Contains sexual material, drug use, obscenity, brief violence and reckless skateboarding. Area theaters.

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