Born May 12th, 1968, to Nancy and Frank Hawk, Tony Hawk is the youngest of four kids, a difference of more than a decade between himself and the next youngest, older brother Steve. At the age of 12, he was brought onto the legendary Dogtown Skateboards team run by Stacy Peralta, a group he would stay with for many years. Even when skateboarding went out of vogue in the early ‘90s, Hawk kept working, touring occasionally, and signed a deal with Activision for the use of his name on a series of video games starting with “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.” Each of these details gives you an idea of the career, but offer zero insight into the man himself. Thankfully, director Sam Jones’s (Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued) documentary Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off isn’t merely a recitation of past deeds and future endeavors, it also heralds a man whose achievements as a skateboarder have entered into the popular zeitgeist. Coming off its world premiere at SXSW 2022, Until the Wheels Fall Off digs less into the grand accolades (and the notable lows) and more into an examination of Hawk himself. It’s in this place beyond traditional recitation that Until the Wheels Falls Off finds its footing and its undeniable power. Though I’m disappointed that this is the second recent documentary exploring Hawk that fully ignores the Christian Slater-led drama Gleaming the Cube (1989), a film I enjoyed a great deal in my youth, the unabashed warmth, affection, and frankness with which Hawk as a person is explored exceeds any kind of expectation one might have.
It all begins with watching Hawk skate at his private facility. Without a word spoken, Hawk tries to do a trick, fails, and tries again. Over and over we watch, the only noise the sound of wheels on wood, the grunts of a body pushing through frustration to do what it can picture. We watch as the board moves away from feet, balance lost, a body fall through the air, sliding on the ramp surface. This opening offers the first glimpse into what awaits as it epitomizes the man himself: driven to achieve, singularly focused, unwilling to give up. Over the course of the 135 minutes, this notion is dissected by Hawk and a cross-section of family, collaborators, and competitors. It offers a sincere and bracing exploration of how Hawk viewed himself as a competitor, how his domination of his sport wasn’t fueled by trying to be the best of all but being the best of himself, and how it was to realize that with the skills of the best comes a loneliness one is often unprepared for. The editing by Greg Finton (Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind) is a true marvel throughout the film, making the transitions between talking head interviews, archived footage, and other material not only feel smooth, but maintain a steady momentum throughout. Momentum, balance, timing: these are all parts of skateboarding and there’s not a moment in Until the Wheels Fall Off which will have you reaching to change the channel, in large part to Finton’s measured, almost musical, groove. It’s not just that the story which Hawk tells then leads to Peralta’s addition, which is then volleyed to Steve Hawk for a response, shot back to skater Lance Mountain for an addition, before Rodney Mullen lays down some beautiful philosophical note to color the tale. It’s that as we listen to the story, we’re shown clips or photos so that there’s a feeling of movement at all times. Even when covering the more sentimental moments, there’s never a loss of energy.
Strangely, while the documentary takes a great deal of time to explore Hawk’s rise to fame, how he survived the lean years, and, ultimately, returned to form as the X-Games grew more popular in the late ‘90s, the documentary only briefly examines his personal life away from the sport. Do keep in mind that part of Hawk’s story *is* related to his family, specifically how his father, Frank, created the National Skateboarding Association and how his relationship to his parents and siblings is directly connected to his personal perspective (the very heart of the documentary). Yet, his relationship to his children, his wives, all of these specific details which make up Hawk are mostly left out. There’s no requirement for Hawk to expend any energy detailing or discussing his private life, no one is owed any information the man is unwilling to give, except things are brought up regarding his personal failings, just not more than through suggestion or insinuation. As such, the negative space regarding the lack of information grows larger despite all the fascinating positive information we learn through the lengthy tale.
There’s even too little, in my estimation, covered regarding Hawk’s deal with Activision, which is likely the biggest reason that Hawk was able to make a resurgence in the first place. Certainly, if we’re talking Hawk’s legacy, the way in which Hawk worked with the gaming companies to not only get the skating right from the music, gear, and style, but he made sure that his fellow real-life skaters would serve as the avatars, making it clear where the legacy belonged beyond himself. (For those curious, track down the 2020 documentary Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story to learn more.) Despite this, though, Jones knows well-enough to take his time when it comes to skating trick 900, a move Hawk was the first to pull off in June 1999. It comes late into the story, but, by then, we know enough about Hawk to understand why Jones brings the documentary to a halt to show us Hawk trying the move over and over until he gets it right. By this point in the story, we’re all-in on Hawk, my spontaneous pumping fist in response to his herculean success was an incredible surprise considering I’m old enough to remember when it happened originally. It speaks to the testament of storytelling that the audience would get swept up in the energy of the moment as we watch sports history occur.
There are some individuals who become so good that they transcend their specialty to become known to all — Leonardo da Vinci (polymath), Pablo Picasso (painter), Pablo Neruda (poetry), Toni Morrison (literature/poetry), Michael Jordan (basketball), Tony Hawk (skateboarding). Though there are always exceptions to the rule, chances are pretty good that if you mentioned any one of these individuals, even the most disconnected from their respective specialty would be able to conjure some awareness and recognition. In the case of Tony Hawk, he was not only the face of popular skateboarding for many years, he’s still considered the best of his generation, if not also among those who still skate today. For all the things we might wish it were to include (like some information on shooting Gleaming the Cube), Until the Wheels Fall Off is an intimate exploration of the pursuit of glory and all the pitfalls which accompany such a dream. Hawk may not be physically the same person he was when he began skating, but it’s clear from what we learn that the journey to push himself, to learn new tricks, is far from complete.
Available on HBO Tuesday, April 5th at 9:00pm ET/PT and will be available to stream on HBO Max.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
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