10 great skateboarding films

From Back to the Future to Skate Kitchen, we do a 360 flip through the history of skateboarding on screen.

18 January 2019

By Tom Jones

Mid90s (2018)

We’re currently seeing a mini renaissance of skateboard-inspired films on our screens. Last year came Skate Kitchen from The Wolfpack director Crystal Moselle, and this spring we’ll see both Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, the nostalgic coming-of-age story Mid90s, and Bing Liu’s much acclaimed documentary Minding the Gap.

But skateboards and the cinema are no strangers. They’ve had a relationship stretching back more than 50 years. One of the earliest examples is Skaterdater, a 15-minute short with zero dialogue. It’s a classic boy-meets-girl story soundtracked by the surf rock group Davie Allan and the Arrows, which was released way back in 1965.

Skating or ‘sidewalk surfing’, as it was known back then, was almost lost to history as a passing fad until the 1970s saw the invention of the polyurethane wheel, which allowed riders to hit bigger and tougher terrain. Soon, skaters such as Tony Alva and Jay Adams, members of the legendary Z-Boys skate crew, were pushing all previous boundaries, and photographers and filmmakers were keen to capture their exploits on camera. This resulted in a 70s spike of skate-based films, including Freewheelin’ (1976), Skateboard (1978) and Skateboard Madness (1980).

Narratively shaky, these were essentially cinematic vehicles for skaters to showcase their skills and tricks. The budgets were low but the enthusiasm behind them was enough to give the new genre traction, leading to the release of an increasing number of skate-inspired films. Before long, more mainstream movies began to have central characters who were skaters, as the skateboard became emblematic of youth identity or rebellious unconventionality.

Here are 10 of cinema’s finest skateboarding films.

Back to the Future (1985)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Back to the Future (1985)

Sure, Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 time-travelling classic is about more than skateboarding, but it’s a fitting start to this list as it depicts a fictional, cinematic creation of the first skateboard.

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) enters the narrative as a committed 80s skater. He ‘skitches’ around town, grabbing the back of moving cars while on his skateboard, swaying effortlessly to the sound of ‘The Power of Love’ by Huey Lewis and the News. However, when travelling back in time to the 50s, Marty is harassed by Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), the local bully and constant tormentor of his teenage father. As he’s being chased by Biff and his gang, Marty spots a younger kid riding a box cart (a wooden box attached to a roller skate). He grabs it and, hurriedly tearing off the box, creates a makeshift board to glide effortlessly away from his enemies. Thus, in an action-packed chase sequence, Marty spectacularly ‘invents’ the skateboard.

Thrashin’ (1986)

Director: David Winters

Thrashin’ (1986)

Thrashin’ was Josh Brolin’s second big-screen outing after The Goonies (1985). He plays Corey, a young skater who likes to hang out and ride around Los Angeles with his gang, the Ramp Locals. The Locals are in an ongoing competition with another group of riders, a tough skater posse known as the Daggers. One of the Daggers was played by Christian Hosoi, a famous professional rider who would go on to create the gravity-defying manoeuvre known as the ‘Christ Air’.

To emphasise this Californian Montague-and-Capulet rivalry, Corey falls in love with Chrissy, the younger sister of Hook, the Daggers’ hard-skating, teenage punk leader. The film follows these two skate-crossed lovers as Corey tries to win her affection, escape the wrath of Hook and prove himself in the park and on the streets as an accomplished skateboarder. With an early live performance from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Thrashin’ is a wonderful time capsule of 80s skate culture, music and style.

Gleaming the Cube (1989)

Director: Graeme Clifford

Gleaming the Cube (1989)

On discovering that his adopted brother has been murdered by a gang of arms-dealing thugs, skateboarder Brian Kelly turns teen detective to bring the culprits to justice. Brian, played by a young Christian Slater, is surrounded by a crew made up of skateboarding legends: Mark Rogowski, Lance Mountain and Mike McGill. Gleaming the Cube also features an early role from Tony Hawk as a skateboarding Pizza Hut delivery boy, more than 10 years before his eponymous computer games made him a household name and arguably the most famous skateboarder in the world.

The film climaxes with Slater being gifted with a cartoonish diamond-plate metal skateboard, apparently faster than other conventional boards, which he uses to chase down his brother’s killers. It’s all worth a watch for some incredible skateboarding sequences (Slater was stunt-doubled by the technical freestyle skate prodigy Rodney Mullen, disguised in a bleached blond wig) and unintentionally comedic 80s moments.

Kids (1995)

Director: Larry Clark

Kids (1995)

Larry Clark’s Kids is a brutal film following the lives of a gang of out-of-control teenage skaters in 90s New York. The protagonist, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), is an HIV-positive skateboarder obsessed with taking the virginity of under-age girls. Calling himself the ‘Virgin Surgeon’, Telly comes across like an inarticulate, baggy-jeaned version of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge. While he wanders the city buying weed, drinking and shoplifting, one of his many one-night stands, Jennie (Chloë Sevigny), is trying to track him down to tell him that he has HIV.

Using cinema vérité techniques and featuring scenes of real-life drug use, Kids is an uncomfortable depiction of the dysfunctional lives of these wayward skaters. Clark hung out with such a gang before making the film. The script was written by Harmony Korine, a hyperactive, 19-year-old skate-rat who would go on to gain success in his own right as the director of such controversial films as Gummo (1997) and Spring Breakers (2012). The majority of the cast were fresh-faced skaters with little or no acting experience; a 16-year-old Rosario Dawson among them.

In Kids we see the skateboard weaponised when Casper (Justin Pierce), Telly’s similarly sociopathic sidekick, beats a man to a pulp with his deck to the gentle innocence of Daniel Johnston’s track ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’.

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

Director: Stacy Peralta

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

Legendary skater Stacy Peralta’s documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys tells the story of how skateboarding moved from something that Californian surfers did when the waves were flat to the worldwide phenomenon and Olympic sport that it has become today. Narrated by Sean Penn, it features stunning archive footage alongside talking-head testimonials from Peralta’s influential 70s skate team, the Z-Boys, hailing from Venice Beach, California (popularly known as Dogtown).

The documentary charts how Peralta, along with others, including Jay Adams and Tony Alva, pushed the skateboard beyond its accepted limits. As severe droughts in the 70s saw backyard swimming pools being drained, Peralta and his friends took the opportunity to use these spaces as skate structures and pioneered transition skateboarding. The Z-Boys’ efforts were not particularly appreciated by the owners of the pools; as documented in this film, these early skaters often had to run from the authorities.

Four years after this film, Peralta would go on to to fictionalise this story in the Hollywood film Lords of Dogtown, which was brought to the screen by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke.

Paranoid Park (2007)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Paranoid Park (2007))

The illicit, outlaw thrill of skateboarding imbues Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a teenage skateboarder who isn’t particularly good at skating but is drawn to the danger of hanging out in Paranoid Park (a fictionalised version of Oregon’s infamous skate spot, Burnside). Paranoid Park houses an illegally built skatepark that’s home not just to skaters but also local burnouts and tearaways. While hopping a freight train late at night with a gang of punks from the park, Alex accidentally kills a security guard trying to apprehend him. Overcome with paranoia, he attempts to juggle the pressures of high-school life and his parents’ divorce, while grappling with the crime he’s committed.

As in Good Will Hunting (1997), Van Sant uses Elliott Smith’s indie folk to provide a melancholic aural backdrop to this uneasy meditation on adolescence, guilt and atonement.

Dragonslayer (2011)

Director: Tristan Patterson

Dragonslayer (2011)

Tristan Patterson’s documentary, Dragonslayer, opens with an ambitious display of skate dedication from the film’s protagonist, Josh ‘Skreech’ Sandoval. Skreech’s style harks back to the days of the Z-Boys, as he drains and then skates a dilapidated backyard swimming pool on his own, until he’s kicked out by an angry owner. He lives an anarchic, freewheeling lifestyle, and much of the film documents him hanging out with his girlfriend, smoking joints and skating.

Personally shot footage by Sandoval is blended with Patterson’s beautifully filmed slices of Americana, featuring drive-ins, camp fires and chili cheese fries. Nothing much happens in Dragonslayer, but that doesn’t matter: it’s an evocative snapshot of youthful rebellion, intoxication and skate punk culture.

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2012)

Director: Stacy Peralta

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2012)

Having spent the 70s going beyond what was thought possible on a board, Stacy Peralta transformed skateboarding once again in the early 80s by forming The Bones Brigade, a young team of incredibly gifted skaters. The Brigade was made up of some of the most inventive skateboarders to ever set foot on a board, including Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero and Rodney Mullen.

Mullen’s story is possibly the most moving aspect of this 2012 documentary about the team. He recounts how his controlling and disapproving father nearly took the wheels off his skate career, and how he struggled with anxiety and an eating disorder throughout his teens and 20s.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

When she was interviewed in the Guardian about her debut film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour recalled her teenage years, saying: “I was never girly enough to hang out with the girls. So I skateboarded and made things.”

The film takes place in the shadowy nighttime streets of a fictional Iranian town known as ‘Bad City’. Wandering the pavements is a character credited only as ‘The Girl’, a female vampire out stalking her prey. When she confronts a young boy on a late-night skate, instead of draining his blood she scares the life out of him by threatening to “feed his eyes to the dogs”, before then stealing his board. The supernatural quality of her character is heightened as she rides away on her stolen wheels and almost flies across the pavement to continue her search for midnight snacks.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Director: Crystal Moselle

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Pushing firmly away from the nihilistic, New York skate scene of Kids, Skate Kitchen is a glorious ode to the truly positive aspects of skateboarding and skate culture. That said, it begins with Long Island skater Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) sustaining a particularly painful between-the-legs skate injury, known in NY skateboard lingo as being ‘credit carded’. As a result, she promises her overbearing mother to quit skateboarding, but, once recovered, Camille’s straight back out on her board. Through Instagram, she tracks down a gang of like-minded skaters living in NYC.

Director Crystal Moselle employs beautifully shot Steadicam sequences of Camille riding her board through the streets, showcasing the liberating, carefree joy one can experience from simply rolling around on a skateboard. Moselle hung out with the girls for a year before filming began, and much of the narrative is based on real-life interviews and conversations she had with them. To Camille and her friends the skateboard is more than just wood and wheels; it’s a way of life.

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