Knowing a bit of the of journey of supreme professional skateboarder Tony Hawk would probably go a long way toward appreciating the new documentary about his life and career, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off. But part of the joy of director Sam Jones’ latest (his first feature was the staggering Wilco profile I Am Trying To Break Your Heart) is discovering things about Hawk that go far beyond a standard highlights reel.
The film opens with the now 53-year-old Hawk practicing on a private half-pipe, rolling back and forth up the high walls of this wooden monster. He’s attempting to land an elusive 720 (two 360-degree spins in one jump), and failing spectacularly time and time again, sometimes sliding down the ramp in defeat, sometimes ugly crashing. But with each attempt, you can see him making micro-adjustments, at times almost landing it but just sliding off his board and hitting the ground once again. This endless pursuit of a new trick (Hawk invented hundreds of them for the skateboard) is what separates Hawk from others on the professional circuit, and it’s why he’s a millionaire merchandiser, video game namesake, and award-winning superstar (and the subject of this epic documentary).
Director Jones pieces together a fairly comprehensive biography of Hawk, including a great deal about his family, particularly his father who helped get professional skateboarding off the ground as a serious sport and not just an exhibition activity. The irony in this is that the more seriously people took skateboarding, the deeper the wedge grew between Tony and his father, because Tony didn’t want people to think he was being given special treatment because of who his dad was. The film features a seemingly endless amount of rare and never-seen archival footage as well as new interviews with Hawk, his family members, closest friends, and other prominent figures in the skateboarding world. These include Stacy Peralta, Rodney Mullen, Mike McGill, Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Neil Blender, Andy MacDonald, Duane Peters, Sean Mortimer, and Christian Hosoi (if any of those names mean anything to you, you’re a more knowledgable person than I).
But what the filmmaker does best is capture the Hawk of today: a family man who has been injured so many times over the decades, his life may literally be on the line every time he skates. And Jones (a skilled photographer, who also hosts the excellent online interview show “Off Camera”) doesn’t leave the question alone as to why Hawk is willing to risk losing everything just to perfect a new trick. Hawk left competition a while ago (because the man has nothing left to prove in that space), but he’s still out there, skating everyday, perhaps because to quit doing so would be admitting defeat and letting go of connections to the past that are still so important to him. It’s a deeper and more emotional journey than expected, and it becomes clear by the end of Until the Wheels Fall Off that the title is more about the wheels in Hawk’s head and less about those on his hundreds of boards.
There may be a bit too much celebration of Hawk’s legacy, but if you’re going to go overboard on anyone in this field, it’s him, so it doesn’t quite feel like complete overkill. Plus, the road was not always easy, especially when skateboarding fell out of favor in the 1990s and Hawk was left borrowing money and almost became homeless. Hawk doesn’t shy away from questions about the worst parts of his life, but he also doesn’t always address them directly either. He often comes across as guarded, wanting to share but having grown up in a time and around others for whom expression any kind of real emotions was openly mocked. The film hits enough emotional beats that it rises above a great many sports-themed documentaries, making it one of the better ones I’ve seen in recent years. Admittedly, even I was surprised at how well Jones stuck a near-perfect balance of informative and entertaining.
The film is now playing on HBO and HBO Max.
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