Knowing a bit about pro skateboarder supreme Tony Hawk’s journey 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 late director Sam Jones (his feature debut was the staggering profile of Wilco I try to break your heart) uncovers things about Hawk that go far beyond a standard highlight reel.
The film opens with Hawk, now 53, practicing on a private half-pipe, rolling back and forth over the high walls of this wooden monster. He attempts to land an elusive 720 (two 360 degree spins in one jump) and fails spectacularly time and time again, sometimes sliding down the ramp in defeat, sometimes horribly crashing. But with each attempt you can see him making micro adjustments, sometimes almost landing but just sliding off his board and hitting the ground once again. This endless pursuit of new tricks (Hawk invented hundreds of them for skateboarding) is what separates Hawk from others on the pro 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 puts together a pretty comprehensive biography of Hawk, including a lot about his family, especially his father who helped get pro skateboarding off the ground as a serious sport and not just an exhibition business. The irony is that the more seriously people took skateboarding, the more the rift grew between Tony and his father, because Tony didn’t want people to think he was getting special treatment because of who his father was. The film features a seemingly endless amount of rare and never-before-seen archival footage as well as new interviews with Hawk, his family members, closest friends and other personalities from 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 these names ring a bell, you’re a person more knowledgeable than me).
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 hang in the balance every time he skates. . And Jones (a veteran photographer, who also hosts the excellent online interview show “Off Camera”) doesn’t leave aside the question of why Hawk is willing to risk losing it all just to perfect a new trick. Hawk quit competing a while ago (because the man has nothing left to prove in this space), but he’s still out there, skating every day, maybe because to quit would be to admit defeat and abandon the ties 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 that the title speaks more of the wheels in Hawk’s head and less of those of his hundreds of boards.
There might be a little too much celebration of Hawk’s legacy, but if you’re going overboard with anyone in this area, it’s him, so it doesn’t really feel like a complete overstatement. Plus, the road wasn’t always easy, especially when skateboarding fell out of favor in the 1990s and Hawk found himself borrowing money and nearly becoming homeless. Hawk isn’t shy about asking about the worst times in his life, but he doesn’t always address them directly either. He often comes across as reserved, wanting to share but having grown up in times and around others for whom the expression of any kind of real emotion was openly mocked. The film hits enough emotional beats to top a lot of sports-themed documentaries, making it one of the best I’ve seen in years. Admittedly, even I was surprised at how well Jones managed to maintain an almost perfect balance between informative and entertaining.
The film is now streaming on HBO and HBO Max.
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