'Bones Brigade: An Autobiography' Relfects on Skateboarding's Coming of Age
Stacey Peralta’s latest film about American skateboarding is less history lesson than it is an in-depth and highly personal group autobiography of a legendary rebel athlete outfit.
In the great Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacey Peralta offers an epochal document of American social history. The documentary traces the steps from 1970s California surf culture to the offshoot sport of skateboarding, in essence, land-surfing ramps and empty pools on small surfboards with wheels. The film also notes skaters' evolution, from mellow surfer boys (and the occasional girl) to more aggressively rebellious competitors.
Peralta’s bright and curiously lovely new film takes up not longer after Dogtown ends, with the dissolution of the Z-Boys. This time, the filmmaker puts himself front-and-center in the interviews that provide a spine for a stream of old VHS skate footage and faded photographs. As he tells it, Peralta refashioned himself as the ringleader for a new crew of bright young skateboarders. After co-forming the skate equipment company Powell-Peralta, which would serve as munitions factory for the sport’s underground resurgence in the 1980s, Peralta put together a squad of improbably talented and driven pre-teens he could mold into stars. Given that the roster included guys like Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, and Lance Mountain, the feat that Peralta accomplished is something akin to discovering the entire Dream Team before they had even entered high school.
Like any other skateboarding team, the Bones Brigade were in some sense just a means to an end, namely, to sell more skateboards and skateboard-related gear. Unlike most of their rival teams during the 1980s, though, Bones Brigade became something of a phenomenon. As a result of a highly canny ad campaign by Peralta and his mad genius creative director Craig Stecyk -- who astutely marketed skaters via a kind of tongue-in-cheek surrealist humor instead of just showing the stars holding the sponsoring company’s wares -- the team became a phenomenon, the closest thing that the decade's underground had to sports heroes. In the subculture of zine-reading, dyed-hair outcasts, the team’s stars (Hawk, Caballero, Mountain, Tommy Guerrero, Mike McGill, and Rodney Mullen) had a status almost unequaled by anybody who wasn’t in a punk band. And they did it without even trying to adopt the aggro pose of opponents like the team led by Tony Alva. Some of their former adversaries show up to grouse good-naturedly about constantly being beaten at competitions by the Bones Brigade “Boy Scouts.”
Although Bones Brigade focuses on the athleticism of the team stars, it doesn’t try to walk viewers through the details of the sport like Dogtown does. While one interviewer after another rhapsodizes about the importance of the invention of the ollie, those with no idea of that trick’s centrality to modern skating might get a little lost. But this hardly matters in the end, because this film is, after all, Peralta's effort to showcase these kids he nurtured through their adolescent years. And they're more than able to explain what the sport meant to them as they barnstormed around the country. In short: everything.
And so Bones Brigade is biography as much as it is a sports documentary, a genre often prone to nostalgia. Peralta’s film avoids that in part by underlining the team's obviously intense and familial bond. Splitting its time between scrappy bits of footage (one of Bones Brigade’s legacies from the 1980s was their ubiquitous skate videos, which inspired the likes of Spike Jonze, who pops in for a quick shout-out) and emotionally charged interviews, the documentary makes its nostalgia seem earned, as subjects look back on their temporary quasi-family.
Peralta is ever the self-promoter, but he doesn’t let his own narrative obscure the stories of Hawk and the other skaters, pretty much all of whom went on to start their own skate companies. While each of these guys makes excellent interview subjects, Mullen is a particular standout. Still floppy-haired and earnest in middle age, his sweet diffidence and zen-like pronouncements are like jewels scattered throughout the film. When discussing how Hawk’s perfectionism was ruining the fun for him, Mullen compares it to having a beautiful house you could never enter because you were always trimming the garden around it. You may not hear a more beautifully phrased metaphor in any other film this year.