Sundance 2012: ‘Bones Brigade’ provides an intimate and poetic behind-the-scenes look at the golden age of skateboarding
Peralta’s stunning shots and seemingly never-ending reservoir of footage of skaters like Mike McGill in their early years makes Bones Brigade a thoroughly enjoyable ride for the viewer. (Photo: Grant Britain)
The 90s had grunge and Ethan Hawke. The 70s: disco and the Cold War. The 80s? Well, the 80s had skateboarding.
With future luminaries such as Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill, and Rodney Mullen exploding onto the scene with shaggy hair, fluorescent t-shirts, and an otherworldly foot-to-board symbiosis, the early 1980s saw skateboarding evolve from an underground hobby left mainly to the blonde-haired surfer dudes in California, to a full-blown alt sport phenomenon practiced the nation over.
And, fortunately for us, the cameras were rolling the whole time.
Directed by skateboarding icon Stacy Peralta — the directorial mind behind the award-winning Dogtown and Z-Boys documentaryand a dead ringer for Dave Coulier of Full House fame — Bones Brigade: An Autobiography tells the captivating story of how a handful of young and fearless kids turned skateboarding into the wildly popular and profitable sport it is today. The film focuses on Peralta, the coach/mentor/father figure of the Bones Brigade skateboarding team, and Hawk, Caballero, McGill, Mullen, Lance Mountain, and Tommy Guerrero — the Bones Brigade’s “A-Team.”
Though the film dazzles visually — with unbelievable footage of a spindly 14-year-old Hawk, whose body at that time was more arachnid than athlete, mugging for the camera alongside a mischievous looking teenage Caballero — it is in the stripped down, deeply personal interviews that Peralta’s documentary finds its voice. Whether it is Mountain describing the mental anguish he suffered from being (by his own admission) the least talented member of the team, or Hawk explaining why, in his early teens, he was already burnt out and ready to give up competitions altogether, the testimonials lend a beautiful depth and sense of humanity to Peralta’s film.
That is not to say that the actual skateboarding takes a backseat in Bones Brigade. On the contrary, the documentary offers a voyeuristic behind-the-scenes glimpse of the sport in its nascent state (with footage of the moment when McGill first unveiled the McTwist and the crowd reactions to Mullen’s revolutionary first freestyle competitions being the highlights for me) that leaves the viewer agog as the film delivers a chronological and nearly shot-by-shot map of the sport’s evolution.
But for all the anecdotes, lip tricks, and choked back tears delivered by the likes of Caballero, Mountain, and McGill, it is Rodney Mullen, the quiet Florida kid with the magical feet, who truly steals the show. When asked during the Q and A session that followed the screening how this film came to be, Peralta explained that, while many members of the Bones Brigade had been badgering him to make the doc, it wasn’t until he sat down at a meeting with a few of the guys at LAX, and Mullen opened his mouth and began speaking, that he decided the movie had to be made.
With his halting cadence and undeniable sincerity, Rodney Mullen provides viewers with a revealing glimpse into a fascinating era in sports. (Photo: Tony Friedkin)
Though the mark he’s left on the sport with his creativity (he invented the flat land ollie, among countless other now-staples of the skateboarding lexicon) and his remarkably obsessive practice regimen (the first thing he did upon arriving at Sundance was to scout an appropriate parking garage in which he could skate from 2:00 am to 6:00 am) are unquestionably amazing, it is his inescapable vulnerability and self-awareness that makes Mullen -– and his tortured genius — the star of Bones Brigade. With his inimitable laugh, perpetually furrowed brow, mop top, and silver tooth, Mullen quickly captures the imagination and empathy of the viewer. As the film wears on, he burrows himself deep inside the audience’s collective heart, recounting his complicated life story with heartbreaking honesty, a sheepish smile, and a fascinating way with words. When presented with a question that many would answer with a quick nod of the head, Mullen instead contorts the aforementioned brow in an expression of pure introspection, as he measures, ruminates, and ultimately delivers a beautifully composed response that is equal parts philosophy and poesy. And it is precisely in these artful soliloquies that the film transcends sport and becomes a manifesto on youth, friendship, and the true meaning of excellence.
However, notably absent from Peralta’s film is any footage –- or even stories, for that matter –- of these young skaters partaking in the alcohol and drug-related dalliances normally associated with childhood fame. This omission though, is no mistake. As the stars explain in the film, Peralta’s positive influence and constant guidance, combined with their shared respect and admiration for each other, helped shield them from any potentially detrimental influences. As Mullen puts it, skateboarding is an art form; it is about individual expression and creativity. But the Bones Brigade was about friendship and brotherhood, and that shines through in the interviews as the men heap praise on each other at every opportunity.
In all, Bones Brigade: An Autobiography succeeds in capturing the genius, originality, and eccentricities of these teenage prodigies who put skateboarding on the map, while at the same time skillfully revealing the experiences and relationships that molded them into the men they are today.
Thankfully, Peralta saw fit to share their wonderful and entertaining story with us.