Once upon a sidewalk there was genteel skateboarding. Then came the mangy Southern Californian roughriders known as the Zephyr team, and asphalt was never the same. Director Stacy Peralta's documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys is a careening ride through the rise and fall of the Z-Boys in the 1970s and the origins of extreme sports.
Dogtown was financed by Vans sneakers, which appear in most action sequences, and Peralta's agenda is clear: He was an original Z-Boy. Yet the film overcomes its commercial allegiance and its potential for self-promotion with a story as gripping as tape on a board. Dogtown takes us to the birth of skateboarding as insurgent street theater and of the renegade attitude associated with action sports. The exploits of gifted skate punks like Tony Alva and Jay Adams unfold against the backdrop of broken homes and a decaying Venice beach community; like rock and roll, the story is the revenge of the latchkey-kid underdog. Then, once sponsors raid the team and fame arrives, Dogtown becomes a cautionary tale: Before our horrified eyes Adams goes from agile class clown to hardened ex-con.
Yet the movie is no downhill ride. Clips of 1970s teens breaking free of their malaise, set to anthems by Thin Lizzy and Alice Cooper, are mesmerizing, as is footage of the '75 nationals. First come the Z-Boys' predecessors, doing quaint handstands; then Adams appears, humping, low on his board, an anarchist on wheels. The sport's equivalent of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the event signaled the aerial launch of a new era.