Photo: ‘Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off’
Tony Hawk – The Life of an Eternally Hungry Athlete
I watch documentaries every now and again (having reviewed several, come to think of it), but I basically never cross paths with one of the more niche subspecies of the genre: the sports doc. I’m not an athletic person, and I’m not particularly invested in the lives of even the best athletes — never mind those who have fallen from grace, be it through drug enhancements or more serious deeds. Yet I find it hard to look away from the stoic majesty of Tony Hawk, who for someone of my generation is arguably more recognizable as a brand — no, an idea — than as a person. When you think of skateboarding, all the pain and effort that goes into it, you think of Tony Hawk, even if you know absolutely nothing about the man.
‘Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off’ is a new HBO Max movie, directed by Sam Jones, who has been far more prolific as a photographer than as a filmmaker. Indeed, ‘Until the Wheels Fall Off’ works better in short, almost split-second bursts, than as a whole; it has quite a few memorable moments, but at 129 minutes long, it rambles more than it should. We’re subjected to talking heads here, as usual, but not only is Tony Hawk himself a magnetic (almost enigmatic) presence, we get interviews with Hawk’s siblings, as well as fellow pro skaters like Mike McGill and Rodney Mullen. I was surprised when, very early on, we’re informed that not only is Tony Hawk the baby of his family (his siblings are all several years older than him), but that his parents were quite advanced in age when they had him; Tony’s mother is deep into her nineties, and catatonic, when we meet her in the film.
Tony Hawk is only a year younger than my parents, but he still dresses like a twenty-something, with a T-shirt and jeans — the casual attire of a man who would probably look uncanny if forced to wear a suit. Tony is 53 years young, and has only retired doing the 900 (a trick he had perfected) for the time being; the documentary implies that Tony Hawk, who has helped define skateboarding as a professionally viable sport for the past four decades, may have a few more tricks left up his sleeve.
From Amateur Skating to Now: 1982 – 2022
There is little doubt that Tony Hawk is a prodigy; his career as a skateboarder pretty much began just when skateboarding was starting to pick up traction — in the 1970s when Hawk wasn’t even in high school yet. Around 1980, Hawk was part of the Bones Brigade, a skating team that also included McGill and Mullen, and it was here that he garnered a reputation as a persistent and ingenious skater, despite his lanky physique being seen as a drawback. When Hawk turned professional in 1982, he was barely in his teens, and he would more or less keep his title as one of the greats up to the present day.
Hawk, along with his contemporaries, grew up and thrived in California, with skateboarding taking on a specific west coast sensibility that would never quite be replicated in New York. Watching this documentary (especially the archival footage from Hawk’s childhood) is like using a time machine to experience the sights and sounds of California in the ‘80s. I do wish we had audio from interviews layered on top of the archival footage for the whole runtime, as I find that to be far more engrossing than the film often cutting away to talking heads; I’m thinking of ‘Amy’, the 2015 documentary about the late Amy Winehouse, which does this masterfully.
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Perhaps the most immersive aspect of the documentary is its usage of music, namely a mixture of first-generation hardcore punk and ‘80s alternative rock that would have probably made the rounds among skaters of the era. I’m very much biased, but I almost audibly gasped when we got needle drops by the likes of New Order, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, and the Replacements, not to mention an all-but-obligatory Sex Pistols spot. Indeed, an issue I have with the film that only became more pronounced over time is the fact that the soundtrack is far more energetic than how the accompanying footage is being edited. There are certain directors, like Quentin Tarantino and James Gunn, who have a way of synchronizing their choices of music with the pacing of their films, so that sound and visuals are complementing each other, or otherwise invoking a memorable dissonance; the problem with ‘Until the Wheels Fall Off’ is that its pacing could be considered languid — almost comatose. When I hear “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols, I would expect quick and implicitly joyous cutting to go along with it, but the montage we actually got retained a slow-and-steady composition.
The most affecting part of the film might actually be the opening scene, which is simply a montage of Tony Hawk in the present day trying (and failing) a particular trick — without words, or even music. We see a lot of failed tricks throughout the movie, but this opening montage really captures the inextricable link skateboarding (really any sport, but skateboarding especially) has with failure. The difference between skateboarding and most other sports, however, is that a failed attempt means physical agony, sometimes a serious injury like a concussion; really, the fact that Tony Hawk is still alive is amazing.
A Decent Documentary That Could’ve Been Great
A good deal of love was put into ‘Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off’, which mostly shows in its treatment of the man himself. Can we even blame the filmmakers for indulging in some excessive sentimentality in the documentary’s final stretch? I will, personally, but I can see why the hammered-in lines about aging and the perils of skating for decades were left in the movie: Tony Hawk is a living legend, but he won’t be around forever. As both an athlete and a stuntman, Hawk’s prowess is undeniable, and his fearlessness and persistence can inspire anyone — even if we plan to never pick up a skateboard in our lives.
The documentary treats its subject with such reverence, actually, that its attempt at a warts-and-all treatment reads as almost disingenuous. Hawk went through a few failed marriages, at least partly due to putting his career over his personal connections, but while the movie gives its time to plenty of other things, it can hardly be bothered to examine Hawk’s errors in his personal life. I’m not sure whether to fault the filmmakers or Tony Hawk for what seem like gaps in the narrative since Hawk himself seems uncomfortable with or unable to express himself in interviews.
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When all is said and done, though, this is the most definitive look into the life of one of the greatest living athletes we’ve gotten so far, and we’re likely going to be stuck with it for quite some time. I do, however, feel that as far as 2022 releases featuring Tony Hawk are concerned, ‘Jackass Forever’ is easily the more poignant venture with regards to middle-aged men continuing to do what they love in the face of aging. Hopefully, we will continue to live in the grace of Tony Hawk’s presence for another two or three decades, and maybe when he is a contented silver-haired man, we can look back on his achievements with more clarity.
‘Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off’ is available to stream on HBO Max.
CAST: Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Mike McGill
CREW: Director: Sam Jones, Producers: Sam Jones, Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Mel Eslyn, Editor: Greg Finton
By Brian Collins
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