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You may look at Lords of Dogtown and say, “Jesus Christ, another Grind.” (Or, more likely, “Jesus Christ, another what’s-its-name—that crappy skateboarding movie from a couple of years ago.”) And Lords of Dogtown is indeed a story already told, a fictionalized version of 2002’s Dogtown and Z-Boys. That documentary, by skateboarder-turned-filmmaker Stacy Peralta, recounted the hoods-to-heroes history of a group of Venice, Calif., skaters who transformed their hobby into an extreme sport after the introduction of urethane wheels in the early ’70s.
Peralta intentionally put out Dogtown and Z-Boys before getting started on the Lords of Dogtown script, just in case Hollywood decided to bastardize his recollections until they turned into, well, Grind. In the movie’s opening minutes, things don’t look promising: Poseur teenagers trying to outcool one another, ridiculous tough talk such as “I ain’t surfing no sloppy seconds,” and director Catherine Hardwicke’s nauseating overreliance on shaky handheld camera—whether she’s zooming in on surf- or skateboard action or just panning over a collection of newspaper clippings—all add up to an eye-rollingly desperate attempt to project attitude. And the group’s moniker, “Boy Kings”? Please.
But then Hardwicke calms down, a little Hendrix plays, and a couple of surprisingly good actors—notably, the magnetic Emile Hirsch, as Jay Adams, and Heath Ledger, unrecognizable and dead-on as the boys’ stoner/businessman mentor, Skip Engblom—grab your attention and let you know that this isn’t just another teen movie. With a kickass soundtrack that features only the good kind of ’70s music, including David Bowie, the Faces, Deep Purple, and the Beach Boys, and an uplifting story about a bunch of likable kids whose passion unexpectedly turns into a career, Lords of Dogtown ends up feeling like Almost Famous, only with surfer dudes instead of a socially awkward rock nerd.
The film begins in 1975, when surf-shop owner Skip decides to make a competitive team out of the sun-and-fun posse that hangs out at his store—which in addition to Jay includes Peralta (Elephant’s John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and Sid (Michael Angarano), the genial rich kid eager to fit in. The combination of new, concrete-hugging wheels and a summer drought that’s keeping Venice’s pools dry allows the boys to invent the gravity-defying style that’s dominated skateboarding ever since. Soon, the kids are getting noticed—at competitions, where square judges scoff, “He didn’t do one wheelie!”; at parties, where Betties swarm; and by big sporting-goods corporations, which begin signing up the Z-Boys (so named after Skip’s store, Zephyr) after their photos appear in a magazine spread.
The Zephyr team’s brush with fame isn’t an entirely smooth or welcome one—on their increasingly heavy sponsorship, one boy remarks, “Man, Stacy looks like a stock car!”—and each of the guys faces personal problems of his own. (Rebecca De Mornay, bedraggled beyond recognition, plays Jay’s hapless druggie mother in the most developed subplot.) Shot in San Pedro and Imperial Beach, the film uses re-creations of the Z-Boys’ original hangouts, most prominently a dilapidated pier that helps give its version of California a less-than-sunny vibe.
But the bulk of Lords of Dogtown focuses on the fun had by a bunch of previously aimless teenagers who suddenly realize, We’re going to be on summer vacation for the next 20 years! And Hardwicke luxuriates in it: A party scene seems to unfold in real time, from its most jubilant hangout moments to the inevitable “I am a golden god”– like messiness. The boys’ first successful foray into a stranger’s empty pool is accompanied by the whole of “Space Truckin’,” playing from the sweet minutes they start kissing air to the oh-shit instant they’re chased out by some dude in a Ron Burgundy suit and ’stache. But they always get away, always laugh about it afterward, and even when they wreak a little havoc, their detractors usually shut up once they see what the Boy Kings can do. By the time Lords of Dogtown ends, the term doesn’t sound so ridiculous at all.
If there’s any title cooler than “Boy King,” it’s “rock star.” And though the musicians in Rock School are only 9 to 17, they deliver what their filthy-mouthed teacher promises at the beginning of the documentary: “They’ll rock your asses.”
Yes, Don Argott’s Rock School seems awfully similar to School of Rock, the 2003 comedy in which Jack Black took a group of students under his windmilling wing. Here, the teacher in question is Paul Green, the founder and director of the Paul Green School of Rock Music in Philadelphia: a hyper 32-going-on-17-year-old who admits he’s probably not qualified to teach. That’s perhaps an understatement, given that his method of encouragement is to say, “If you mess up once, I’ll punch your face out.” As the mother of one of Green’s approximately 120 students deadpans, “It’s not the Sorbonne.”
Green began the program in his living room in 1999, after his own music career didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Focusing on a largely ’70s-rock catalog heavy on Santana and Frank Zappa, Green veers from joking around with the kids to what can diplomatically be described as tough love. He soon recants his earlier statement about his qualifications to say he’s a natural teacher, though a handful of Rock School’s 93 minutes, mainly shot in the school’s tight spaces, may make you cringe. Expletives and some serious temper tantrums are a typical reaction from Green when a student screws up, and Argott catches him in quite a few moments of red-faced fury bracing enough to make even audience members sit up a little straighter. He can’t be too nice, Green says during an interview, because the kids are “manipulative little fucks.”
Harsh, yes, but then again, it’s hard to argue with results. Green is the main attraction at first, but when his students finally get to play, they steal the show. Not all of the kids are wicked talented: Nine-year-old mouth-breathing twins Asa and Tucker are more cute than impressive as they rock out in the school’s Beginners’ Black Sabbath Show, and 16-year-old hangdog Will sticks around mostly for social reasons—in Green’s words, he’s “a piss-poor musician.” But when a select group of students travels to Germany to participate in Zappanale, a five-day Zappa festival, they do their teacher proud. There, the kids play in front of a huge audience with former Zappa collaborator Napoleon Murphy Brock, and their performance is an exhilarating mesh of perfect timing, gritty vocals, and stellar musicianship: A solo by tiny, lightning-fingered guitar prodigy C.J., for example, ends with the rest of the band and then Brock himself bowing before him.
Indeed, Rock School captures much of the joy of its fictional predecessor, and without the sugarcoating of another recent look-what-kids-can-do documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom. The students’ thrill at what they can accomplish is one obvious source of feel-goodness, but many of the movie’s smiles come from Green’s never-ending patter. Whether he’s urging his infant son to say “Jethro Tull” or challenging one boy to do better by asking if he wants to play for the Bangles, Green manages to convey that his enterprise is fun—though fun to be taken quite seriously. “We can laugh at ourselves,” the teacher advises at one point, “but now we’re going to play some Sabbath, and that’s no laughing matter.”CP