Stream it or skip it?
Executive produced by the Duplass brothers and directed by Sam Jones, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off (HBO Max) explores the singular life and career of the skateboarding legend, who is now 53 and still hits the ramp four days a week. When do you know if you’ve proven yourself and who are you really proving it to?
The essential: Think professional skateboarding, and your next thought will probably be Tony Hawk. He’s synonymous with the sport, an innovator over the decades and now a celebrity who, like Snoop Dogg, has acquired something of a generational mark. Skateboarding is him and he skates. But how did it all happen and what does it matter? These are the questions posed by Until the wheels fall, which features in-depth and revealing interviews with Hawk himself alongside many of his peers in skating. Vibrant archival footage traces Hawk’s early years as a clumsy California kid proving himself alongside one of the first professional pilots, a group led by Stacy Peralta and her Bones Brigade crew. He was “weak and skinny,” Peralta says, and he skated “like he was being operated on by a puppeteer.” Ostracized early on and dogged by accusations of nepotism – his father co-founded the sport’s first sanctioning body – Hawk’s revolutionary ollies to achieve aerial propulsion quickly became the industry standard, and appreciation for his series of flips and varials followed. Before long, he was winning major competitions, regularly silencing haters, and promoting the sport nationally with appearances in Peralta’s Bones Brigade videos, which became the first viral sensation of the burgeoning era of VHS.
All along wheels, Hawks talks about his innate individualism and stubborn sense of determination as the driving forces of his life and career. His exploits earned him six figures at 17 and he owned his own home. But burnout hit hard and he had to turn inward to regain his creative spark. There were also personal struggles, especially when the industry collapsed in the early 1990s and with it Hawk’s first marriage. But skateboarding has remained a constant, as has the quest for the ultimate trick. Of course, there was the McTwist, the 540 tumbler developed by Mike McGill. But what about a 900? wheels drags Hawk’s journey with the mighty, mind-bending antenna like chapter heads, and in 1999 and the X-Games, his relentless and determined drive to land him – to prove it to himself as much as to his peers and to the world at large – is written all over his face.
In the early 2000s and another iteration of skateboarding notoriety, Hawk’s constitution was crumbling again, and he recalls how rehab and a reinvestment in his life as a parent helped him learn to really love each other. Even still, the skating is with him, inside him. He never stops, not even when he’s “checked in somewhere”, and Until the wheels fall live down to his title with a finale that finds Hawk and several of his fellow veteran greens stubbornly attacking the ramp. “It’s too late,” says longtime pro skater Lance Mountain. “We will die skateboarding.”
What movies will this remind you of? Especially in its anterior part, wheels recalls the 2001 documentary directed by Stacy Peralta Dogtown and the Z-Boys which explored skateboarding’s roots in California’s surf and street culture and its formative competitive era and included interviews with many of the first-generation professional skateboarders who appear here, including Hawk. (Peralta also featured the Bones Brigade in its own 2012 document.) Motivation was a 2013 documentary featuring a later generation of riders – Rob Dyrdek, Paul Rodriguez, Jr. and Steve Berra among them – as they navigated personal and professional adversity in preparation for a prestigious skateboarding competition in street in New York.
Performance to watch: Many of the veteran skater interview segments here are filled with their own very distinct and very strong personalities, whether it’s Duane Peters calling Hawk’s original style “baton twirling” and “fuckin’ flippy doo-da-day bullshit” or Lance Mountain channeling his looping presence of old Bones Brigade videos into a stark, resigned take on the physical toll of ramp banging.
Memorable dialogue: Skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen – he invented the flatground ollie, among many other street and freestyle innovations – appears throughout wheels to offer his Zen perspective on a life spent pursuing discipline. “I think watching Tony learn and fall is more interesting than watching him pull off tricks, because you can see how fast he goes into something called the calculus of variations, how he corrects himself and quickly gets to the right place. This, to date, is unprecedented.
Sex and skin: Any.
Our opinion : Hearing Stacy Peralta describe the skateboarding industry as cyclical, it’s hard not to think of Tony Hawk as the tree trunk that holds its rings. Hawk was there in his formative years, riding the pools of Cali as the youngest, skinniest member of the Powell-Peralta Bones Brigade and turning pro in 1982. Hawk was there in the late 1980s, winning competing and indulging in the rise of world famous skateboarding. Hawk was there for his ESPN X Games-powered comeback in the mid-1990s, and in 1999, when he finally landed the 900 after ten straight tries, skateboarding’s “holy grail of tricks.” And he was the catalyst for him to achieve an even higher level of exposure and compensation available with the mounting of extreme sports events that rivaled major rock tours and a series of hit brand video games. As Until the wheels fall shows, for over 40 years of contemporary skateboarding reality, Hawk has been there. And he has the physical and emotional scars to prove it. Broken elbows, broken marriages, broken pelvises. Taking slams, taking risks and suffering too many concussions and blackouts to count. After all, Tony Hawk is still around, pushing huge towers, taller ramps, and high-exposure ramp setups involving loops, spirals, roof-to-roof jumps, and flaming curbstones. But at least he also makes time for a home life. “I think he’s in his best shape now,” says his eldest son, professional skateboarder Riley Hawk. And he appears to be doing just that, shown on a motorbike with his youngest daughter. But its longevity is informed by a soul that does not waver. “Tony is competing with Tony,” says Lance Mountain. “He’s always in competition with Tony.” And ultimately, wheels concerns this unique competition and to whom it is addressed. You get the impression that Hawk, and certainly many of his fellow riders, would still resist physical challenges and relish the rush of skateboarding even if the sport had never migrated beyond those dry pool bowls. in drought-stricken 1970s California.
Our call: SPREAD IT. Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off is the moving portrait of a skateboarder sentenced to life imprisonment. It’s a must for anyone who grew up with the sport, but also a final count exploration to prove something to yourself.
Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicagoland. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glenganges