Some subjects lend themselves better to film. A skateboarder spinning 900 degrees in the air and crashing into a half-pipe is one of those subjects.
It’s hard to describe to someone how pervasive Tony Hawk was in American culture for almost a decade. He brought an entire generation of kids into skateboarding. His Pro Skater series are some of the best sports games ever made. This man is the Michael Jordan of his sport, and for a brief period of time, became the Michael Jordan of all sports. Every kid of certain age, skateboarding fan or not, watched him attempt, and succeed at doing the 900 at the X Games. He is known by people who will never pick up a skateboard—and this in a sport where you will never know the name of another skateboarder.
For a time, Tony Hawk was on par with Tiger Woods in cultural impact.
Directed by Sam Jones, of the same On Camera series, which crafts excellent profiles of artists, it reflects his personal interest: fascinating, high-achieving people working on the details of their craft.
The film opens with Tony Hawk attempting to do the 900 again in a practice setting. He fails dozens of times, cracking into the half-pipe, over and over. You see him climb the metal ladder to the pipe and realize just how high up he’s skateboarding from. You see him get up from every fall and realize that this is a man in his fifties. It’s mesmerizing to watch him continue to try to do it, beating himself up, willing himself to get it done.
I also cannot resist video footage from the 80’s and 90’s. Tony Hawk’s documentary is built off a bedrock of such footage. Grainy images of SoCal kids screaming at Tony Hawk to fall as he skates inside of an empty pool, home videos of Tony Hawk with his kids during the fallow years of the early 90’s. You feel that this famous person’s entire life has been laid out before you. If you’re not familiar with the Tony Hawk story, seeing a baby-faced Tony grind on a rail is not only charming, it’s perspective shifting. This giant of the skateboarding world has been doing this for his entire life. From the moment he could skateboard, he’s been skateboarding. And there lies the key to not only his success, but his likability.
This documentary helped me understand why Tony Hawk is so easy to root for. We love people who love what they do, and Tony Hawk loves what he does. Even more than that, Tony Hawk is what he does. He comes across as a genuine, kind, and compassionate human being. All his rage, all his anger, he directs towards his skating. To watch his face narrow down into a focused stare is never not interesting to watch. We want to be inspired to be better, and it’s very hard to not watch Tony Hawk and not be inspired. It’s what makes him such an easy celebrity to support.
There are the obligatory talking head interviews with his contemporaries, each of which is more fascinating than the other. Stacy Peralta (a Lord of Dogtown), comes across as a calm, collected, father-like figure. Lance Mountain is simultaneously the definition of chill, and yet incredibly focused on his craft (at one point, he says that in order to do the McTwist move, you just need to have “balls”). Rodney Mullen is a zen-like creature who quotes Nietzsche. Duane Peters bounces with nervous, manic energy, as he oscillates from unstable former bully to remorseful adult. There is not a face onscreen that is uninteresting.
As a documentary, it’s not revolutionary. It starts at the beginning and ends at the end. It has the same arcs and beats of many biographical documentaries. Humor where necessary, drama to remind you of the subject’s importance. It’s a little too long and really tries to hammer home how tough Tony had it long after that point has been made.
I didn’t care.
I do not watch sports documentaries for revolutionary structure or mise-en-scene. I watch them like I watch an easily digestible TV show. Winning Time, A Courtship of Rivals, Bad Boys, The Last Dance, Basketball: A Love Story, every single Olympic documentary special. These documentaries distill the pure, unadulterated entertainment of the human form achieving what was impossible before. That is what Tony Hawk has done. This is an eminently watchable account of a man giving everything he has to a sport he loves deeply, and when it comes on, you might find yourself watching it until the end.
Now streaming on HBO and Hulu