Sundance 2012: Bones Brigade: An Autobiography Review

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
Directed by: Stacy Peralta
Featuring: Tony Alva, Steve Caballero, Tommy Guerrero, Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Lance Mountain, Rodney Mullen, Stacy Peralta, George Powell

In his break-out documentary, Dogtown and Z Boys, director Stacy Peralta told us the story of how he and his friends turned skateboarding from a goofy novelty for dorks and children into an extreme sport. Now, with Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, Peralta shows us how the next generation of skaters (that he personally scouted, coached, and sponsored) turned skateboarding into a worldwide phenomenon. Prepare yourselves for 90 minutes of fluorescent t-shirts and Flock of Seagulls haircuts.

Like most historical docs, Bones Brigade is driven by talking heads and archival footage, but there is such an incredible array of amazing archival footage here, much of it from Peralta’s own personal collection, that the film is never dull. What is surprising about the footage, most of it culled from old VHS tapes, is the athletic and technical level the Bones Brigade skaters were at so early on. These guys, particularly Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk, were often doing tricks that wouldn’t be popularized until nearly a decade later. It is truly incredible how influential they guys were on the world of skateboarding. From the most fundamental skateboarding tricks, to the first-ever skate videos, to a keen eye toward marketing that made skateboarding into a viable business, most of what we know as skateboarding today can be traced back to Peralta and his crew. As Bones Brigade team member Lance Mountain says in the film, “We pioneered the way to make money at skateboarding.”

Despite their success, these guys weren’t at all cynical. They didn’t party their money away. They weren’t interested in the fame. For each of them, skateboarding represented a way out of the tough circumstances that they were raised in. A destitute immigrant kid, born with scoliosis, named Steve Cabellero. A rich white kid, socially stunted by emotionally abusive parents, named Rodney Mullen. A scrawny nerd who was bullied relentlessly, even by other skateboarders, named Tony Hawk. All of them skateboarding prodigies.

For nostalgia geeks, like myself, who grew up with Powell/Peralta posters on my wall and a board under my feet, the film is both a trip down memory lane and a surprisingly different point of view as to exactly what went down all those years ago. But, for outsiders, the film is a tale of losers who banded together and went out to create something new that they could be winners at. Peralta, himself, was the guiding force in all of this, a key figure without whom none of it would have happened. And so, while this film is sure to be labeled a vanity project by some, there is really nobody better to tell this story than Stacy Peralta.

Now, I will say that the film doesn’t have quite as stylish a look as some of Peralta’s other films. Part of that is simply because the history lesson animations, 2D graphic photos, and beautiful Super 8 footage of Riding Giants and Dogtown and Z Boys just isn’t necessary here. All of that is replaced by the aforementioned bad VHS footage, and so there is an obvious switch in aesthetic. It’s not a problem for the film, and Peralta definitely embraces the look of the time (the film actually starts with a title card that reads “This movie takes place in the 80s”), but it does have the unfortunate overall effect of feeling less polished than Peralta’s previous work. And the film does have a few problems.

The two lowest points of the film are a largely un-motivated weepy montage that features Peralta and Cabellero sniffling about how good they had it (I overheard one festival-goer say that they never want to see a director crying in his own movie again) and the unneeded outsider opinions chiming-in to tell us why these guys were so great (especially egregious were appearances from people like Ben Harper and Fred Durst–who cares what they think?).

For some, this will be just another skateboarding movie, but for me, Bones Brigade is an instant classic. Peralta brings a lot of love for his team and the sport of skateboarding to the table. He raised these kids, though he was still a kid himself, and skateboarding was his whole life. Peralta’s passion is palpable and his hand as a director is always present. There is more than enough nostalgia here to satisfy any child of the ’80s (I involuntarily yelped at the mention of Gleaming the Cube) but there is plenty for newcomers as well. Whether you want to dig into the compelling emotional backstories of Lance Mountain, Rodney Mullen, and Tony Hawk or just figure out where the heck pop culture staples such as The X Games and Tony Hawk’s Boom Boom Huck Jam originated, Bones Brigade: An Autobiography is worth a watch. — Josh

You can check out my interview with Stacy Peralta from Sundance 2012, coming up on a future episode of The Documentary Blog Podcast.

SCORE: 3.5 stars

  • Thanks for this, I cannot wait to see it in Germany, I hope they will not synchronize it into German language…

  • Josh, thanks for an interesting review. Your paragraph starting with ‘Despite their success, these guys weren’t at all cynical’ is a great summary of what the documentary is about.
    Two notes: Steve’s last name is spelled ‘Caballero’. When Stevie and Stacy cry in the film, how can you call that ‘un-motivated’? This is not a fictional film driven by the motivation of writers. It’s a documentary with real people and REAL emotions. God bless Stevie and Stacy for being truly thankful for the blessings they have enjoyed.