Before Hollywood had a chance to fictionalize their story, the influential 1970s skateboarding group Z-Boys gathered together to tell their story in the engaging 2001 documentary led by one of their own, director Stacy Peralta. Narrated by Sean Penn, 'Dogtown and Z-Boys' covers the early history of skateboarding and reveals the group's origins through archival footage and modern-day interviews.
In the 1960s, skateboarding was a short-lived children's fad and was difficult as the clay wheels felt every imperfection traveled over. In 1972 Cadillac Wheels substituted urethane and revolutionized the experience, making for a more fluid ride and re-energizing the activity.
In 1971 Skip Engblom, Craig Stecyk, and revolutionary board-shaper Jeff Ho opened up a surf shop in Venice, CA and later sponsored a surf team made up of locals. With the surf only being good in the morning, some of the kids took to skateboarding because of its similarities. Paved schoolyard playgrounds built on hillsides and in canyons served as great places to practice. Adding to their outlaw/outcast image, they would clandestinely use empty pools, some of which they removed the water from, and began to develop a vertical style.
The kids got the surf shop to sponsor a skateboarding team and first made their presence known by competing in and doing well at the 1975 Del Mar Nationals where they changed the paradigm from the stand-up ‘60s style to their ‘70s surf style. Stecyk worked as a photojournalist and chronicled the Z-Boys. The world was on notice, and as major board manufacturers came after the team to sponsor them, the members began to go their separate ways.
Towards the end, the documentary focuses on three of the best. In 1977 Tony Alva was voted the first Skateboarder of the Year and is described by an interviewee as both the Michael Jordan of skateboarding and the Dennis Rodman. He is credited with the first aerial one afternoon when all four wheels were airborne and he nailed the landing. Modesty aside, Peralta has been the most successful because he handled business well. He joined up with a board company and started the Bones Brigade, featuring the next generation of talented riders like Tony Hawk. He hooked back up with Stecyk and created some of the first skateboarding videos. Jay Adams reacted poorly to the spotlight and the commercialization of the sport. He partied and wasted the opportunities available. Not until the film's conclusion is it revealed how tragic his story is, serving time in a Hawaiian prison on drug-related charges.
The Z-Boys are an interesting group, who changed the world without intending to as a result of finding their place in it. While the film presents them in a good light, they do come off like jackasses at times since they were territorial about non-locals using "their" Venice beach waves, resorting to fighting and throwing items like concrete, yet they had no problem trespassing to use other people’s pools.
Peralta shot all the interviews in black and white to evoke Stecyk's photography, except Stecyk's, which creates a harsh look. The subjects do a great job telling their story. The film also boasts an awesome classic rock soundtrack featuring artists they would have listened to such as Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Joe Walsh, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, Pink Floyd, The Stooges, The Allman Brothers, and Neil Young.
'Dogtown and Z-Boys' is not a film that benefits greatly from its 1080p/ MPEG-4 AVC transfer, as a good portion of the modern footage looks worse than the damaged archival material. It's expected that three-decades-old 16mm and super-8 footage that was never intended for a feature film would have dirt and scratches, but the real off-putting visuals are the current b&w interviews.
While the raw, low-fi look seems to visually capture the group's attitude, it causes artifacts to run rampant. Some light reflections appear as noise, and the grain is so active in one scene it looks like insects are crawling on the subject's face. The black levels aren't very dark, the contrast and details are limited, and sharpness and depth are lacking.
The color footage, even the archival material, fares better. The blacks are richer and the reds have the greatest saturation. There's more detail and depth, but only in comparison. For those who own the DVD, the visuals certainly offer no reason to double-dip.
The audio gets a slightly better treatment presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0, although the full system doesn’t get much use. The interviews and Penn’s narration play front and center and are always clear and understandable. The classic rock soundtrack makes the best use of the surround and presents the only use of bass. These elements are balanced well together as the music levels are constantly adjusted to allow those speaking to be heard. The dynamic range is limited, ranging between the loudness of the music and everyone speaking at a similar level of conversation. There’s not much in the way of soft sounds and whispers taking place.
Faintly heard through the surround system are occasional ambient effects, such as wheels cutting through a pool or the sounds of the audience and the injuries at Del Mar. However, none of it sounds realistic, which may be in part because it’s obvious no one was on scene with a Nagra or other recording device. On the commentary track, there is some discussion about using a plastic water bottle to create a bone-crunching effect. The imaging is also limited because none of the sounds move between channels.
'Dogtown and Z-Boys' isn’t just for skateboard aficionados and X-Game watchers. It's an intriguing look at the origins of a subculture that had national appeal, yet could only have originated in California. Although the Blu-ray presentation leaves a lot to be desired, the raggedness works in context with the subject matter. It's a film worth seeing even though I don't think it's a Blu-ray worth owning.