Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

Sophia Satchell Baeza

With the blistering Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), Stacy Peralta combined interviews with ‘70s skateboard footage to look at the beginnings of swimming pool skate culture and the pioneering Zephyr team. Bones Brigade, his latest documentary on the subject, uses a similar framework but moves us to the 1980s and onto Peralta’s days as a mentor to the prodigious Bones Brigade skate team. What we get is an intimate, almost jovial look at a young team of skating prodigies who unwittingly changed the face of modern skate culture. You know the Ollie, the Caballerio, the McTwist, and, er, Tony Hawk? You’ve only got them to thank.

The autobiographical aspects of the film has much to answer for; namely, that this is going to involve a lot of back-patting and handshaking between a group of influential game-changers (and friends). The film avoids the usual ‘rags to riches’ disaster endings, or the rock ‘n’ roll in-fighting you’d expect between hyper-competitive kids (which is only gently hinted at). Any drama we get emerges from character studies of the group’s talented but complex members. Craig Stessek – a writer on Dogtown, photojournalist of the group, and the man who came up with their name, is one of many fascinating studies. A man who makes Hunter S. Thompson look like a trustworthy babysitter, Stessek seems so notably addled by substances that any form of answer to an interview question becomes a three-minute stutter – basically it’s hilarious. The non skate pro talking heads, which include Spike Jonze and Ben Harper, are fairly pointless, although the bizarre inclusion of skater Dhani Harrison, George Harrison’s son, who asked them over to his house as a kid, was entertaining and touching – both the Bones and Dhani express shared amazement at the presence of the other.

The entire film, as far as I’m concerned, could have happily rested on Rodney Mullen: a Bones Brigade member and skateboarding prodigy who invented countless tricks like the darkslide, the impossible and the 360 flip. Potentially the most complicated characters in the film, and worthy in my mind of a documentary to himself, Mullen’s eccentricity soon becomes an obvious measure of his intelligence and skateboarding genius. A clear outsider in a group described as a “home for misfits”, Mullen’s makes for a tense, white-knuckle interview. Softly spoken, prone to linguistic whimsy and looking like a younger and less botoxed Steve Tyler, Mullen flits from references to Kafka and metaphysical ponderings to observations about his complicated and emotionally abusive relationship with his father, and then back to skating. But mainly, he makes his skateboard look like playdough.

By all accounts, the Bones Brigade were a group of ‘boy scouts’ content with getting ‘stoked’ on skating and nothing else. If you’re looking for rock ‘n’ roll footage, you won’t get that here, and yet this is surprisingly undetrimental to the pace of the film. Moments of derision at the boys’ squeaky clean image from jealous pro-skaters like Duane Peters are pretty funny. In an understated way, Bones Brigade touches on much darker themes: about the nature - and potential dangers of – competing on a professional, madness as a product of obsession, father-son relationships, and even male anorexia (a topic rarely if ever explored in pop culture).

Even if the McTwist sounds more familiar to you as a piece of processed fast-food chicken, the sheer artistry of the sport won’t fail to hook you in. Aided by a zippy pace benefitting from choppy editing, a suitably rad soundtrack, and some quality B-movie footage (courtesy in part from the terrible-looking yet hilarious “The Search for Animal Chin” also directed, rather embarrassingly, by Peralta) Bones Brigade turns out to be more engaging than you might first think. My verdict: tubular, man.

Follow Sophia on Twitter: @SophiaSB1

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