SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — There were many laughs and some tears, but mostly the crowd switched between adoring focus and roaring applause at the Sundance Film Festival screening of Stacy Peralta’s newest skateboarding documentary, The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, at Salt Lake’s Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
The Bones Brigade was the skateboarding team of the ’80s — sponsored by Powell-Peralta skateboards, and coached by Stacy Peralta of the Zephyr Team, previously documented in the skater’s Dogtown and Z-Boys, which premiered at Sundance 11 years ago.
The story in Dogtown was of the origins of skateboarding — then a sport that emulated surfing — and a team of talented young riders who imploded the minute they tasted success. Bones Brigade, which was shown Tuesday in Salt Lake City, picks up the story the following decade.
The documentary begins with a black screen and the sounds of boys screaming and the screech of scraping wood and wheels on cement. “This film takes place in the 1980s,” appears on the screen. As we see a skinny-legged Tony Hawk falling off his board wearing short shorts and high socks and covered in pads, we know this must be true. Contemporary Hawk then looks into the camera and tells us that skating gave him a sense of identity and confidence. And purpose.
When Peralta founded his team of no-name kids, there was no way of knowing they would be the best team in the sport for a decade. Over the years, the team features many riders, but the original six were always at the top: Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen, Tommy Guerrero, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, and Hawk.
Unlike their predecessors, the story of the Bones Brigade isn’t one of destruction, but one of invention, realization, and ultimately of legacy. Theirs is the story of how skateboarding became its own sport that went from the underground to the mainstream, and finally to something that could be a profession — and a lucrative one at that.
The context, the history, and the characters are all there. But what wasn’t expected, Peralta told Wired.com in Park City last week, was how emotional the story would become.
“Once we sat down it became so much more personal to what they struggled with, and it became much more of an interior journey through these guys’ lives,” Peralta said. “I was certainly hoping to achieve that, and where it went was a surprise. And it wasn’t what I was expecting.”
To that end, the film delves into what it was like to be fifteen, famous in skateboarding but an outcast at school, and often with parents who could not support skating as a lifestyle. What Peralta was surprised by, but maybe shouldn’t have been, was how hard looking back at adolescence can be for anyone, let alone people who took up skateboarding largely to be alone and to escape whatever social pressures face normal teenagers.
The details of their complete adoration of the sport, their determination to be better, and to impress their father-figure of Peralta, are all there. The first time Hawk was hospitalized from falling, he remembers thinking: “At risk of my own health, I’m going to keep doing this.” He was hospitalized so many times that a doctor pulled him aside and asked if his parents beat him.
While Hawk is to this day the most recognizable name in skateboarding, Rodney Mullen steals the movie, and probably some hearts along the way. The way he talks is so calm, so introspective, so articulate and beautiful, that it made the pain and the joy described in his interviews palpable.
Both Hawk and Mullen were the outsiders from the beginning, maybe because both were the best in their areas for most of their time on the team, and they both quit competing for small periods of time during their reign. Their struggle with winning might seem hard to understand, until Mullen speaks.
“It’s like a Kafka short story,” he says. “You build something, and you can’t live in it, you just sit around guarding it.”
In other words, they weren’t working hard to win anymore, they were working hard to not lose.
Mullen would go on to invent the flat-land “ollie” (named for Alan Gelfand), the trick that would revolutionize street skating and probably the most fundamental trick in the sport today. But that’s just how it was with these skateboarders. Their inner struggles, their personalities and their camaraderie all contributed to their creativity. In constant competition, they were in constant creation. Caballero invented the Caballerial — a 360-degree ollie — and McGill invented the McTwist. And so on. And so on.
The Bones Brigade didn’t just shape the physical act of skating, they aided in transforming the culture around it. They were present at the invention of street skating, the half-pipe, and homemade ramps — tools that made skating accessible to anyone.
The creative way in which Peralta and his partner George Powell, with the help of artist Craig Stecyk, approached marketing paved the way for the first skate videos — a genre that numbers in the thousands today.
“We wanted to do something that was more than what magazines could provide,” said Peralta. “So we dreamt up this idea of making a film on the team. We didn’t realize that when we were going to premiere that film that the VCR revolution was also going to parallel that.”
They thought they’d sell 300 tapes, but they sold around 30,000.
Peralta himself is in the film, at the time only a few years older than the team he was mentoring. The skateboarder had his fair share of hesitations about doing this film, he said, because he didn’t want to seem narcissistic, despite accepting the worthiness of the story.
To combat this fear, he brought on documentary film editor Josh Altman, who took the reins when it was Peralta’s time to be interviewed or when things got heavy.
“He didn’t know these guys, he didn’t know this world, so he was coming in straight as a storyteller,” Peralta said. “That really helped me get a little distance.”
And while the story can be very emotional at times, its subjects have clearly never stopped having fun.
“There are places where we make fun of ourselves in this film,” Peralta said. “I didn’t realize what a dork I was. There’s video footage of me as a total dork, and there is film footage of me as a total Jeff Spicoli look-alike before Jeff Spicoli.”
To reconnect with the past in such an honest and fun way is an opportunity the members of the Bones Brigade have wanted since Peralta debuted Dogtown, and not only did they get it with Bones Brigade, it is in many ways a more successful film than Peralta’s first on the subject.
Peralta saw what fame did to his first team, and he mentored this group by learning from his own mistakes. They didn’t need money or fame; they needed skating. And like his own life, Peralta has learned from autobiographical filmmaking that sometimes it’s best to step away from something so personal and let the story reveal itself.
Though they haven’t been all together like this in twenty years, their chemistry and mutual love was tangible during their Q&A following the Salt Lake City screening.
When a small child asked the group, who were all there other than Hawk, “Do you still skate?” the answer was a unanimous “Yes.”
But then, the soft-spoken Mullen took the mike and said, “I was afraid I was going to be late tonight because I found a spot under the Marriott in Park City.”
As they say, true love matures, but it never dies.