Let’s face it–most surf movies are incredibly boring.
Surf “porn” with repeated barrels, aerial maneuvers, tropical locales and hipster soundtracks.
That’s perfect for groms or big screens at beach eateries and bars, but fail to live up to any basic cinematic story-telling standards.
A few filmmakers have done their best to introduce audiences to the themes that make surfing a truly original sport. These directors, Bruce Brown, Stacy Peralta, John Milius and Jeremy Gosch all made great films first and surfing films second.
All touch on themes rarely examined by everyday surfers and involve some of the sport’s brightest stars, writers, and most iconoclastic and idiosyncratic surfers. If I had to add a sixth film here it would definitely be Sunny Abberton’s fascinating and original Bra Boys.
1. The Endless Summer (1964)
In the early 1960s, pioneer surf filmmaker Bruce Brown set off on a trip around the world with Mike Hynson and Robert August, two young surfers from Southern California on a quest for an “endless” summer. They scored waves in Senegal, roamed across apartheid-era South Africa, rode endless peelers at Cape St. Francis and surfed backwash in Tahiti.
The sense of humor and sympathetic and silent performances of Hynson and August, combined with the deadpan narration of Brown made this a national hit in 1966 and a groundbreaking adventure film.
Endless Summer has defined surf travel for generations, and still holds up as a timeless narrative on the innocence of surfing and the friendship that still link surfing and surfers around the globe. If you haven’t yet embarked yet on your own Endless Summer, free of surf camps and a calendar, then watch the film and find your dream.
2. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
A decade after clean cut Hyson and August traipsed around the world in mod suits and Ray Bans, a collection of scruffy kids from the wrong side of the tracks in Santa Monica and Venice or Dogtown took the radical Hawaiian vertical surfing style epitomized by Larry Bertleman, Buttons Kaluhiokalani and Mark Liddel and applied it to the waves of Venice, and the streets, banks and pools of Southern California.
Dogtown and Z-Boys is Stacy Perralta’s brilliant homage to his youth in which he digs deep and comes up with a stunning deconstruction of the ill
usion of the Ho
llywood glitter surrounding the surf and skate culture of Southern California.
Brilliantly written and directed, everything is pitch perfect in this documentary that sheds light on 1970s-era surf and skate culture that until recently was really a lost decade.
As someone who learned to surf and skate in Imperial Beach, a U.S.-Mexico border version of Dogtown during the same era, this movie draws you in and makes you think about the social forces that brings surfers together in a state of joy, and at the same time, as in the case of Jay Adams, spit them out into the street.
The fictional version, The Lords of Dogtown was filmed in Imperial Beach and is an admirable attempt to convey the era, but falls way short of Peralta’s original.
3. Big Wednesday (1978)
I still remember watching this John Milius-directed film when it first came out in at the Vogue Theater in Chula Vista. My grom buddies and I laughed at all the right moments, were in awe of the surfing finale, loved the style and were lucky enough to understand the Changing of the Guard storyline.
Co-writers Milius and Denny Aaberg were Malibu surfers from the early 60s who in Big Wednesday managed to capture the end of the longboard era, Vietnam, big-wave surfing, professionalism and the essence of surfing and style.
Originally written off by surfers and critics, Big Wednesday ultimately earned the respect it deserves. The classic lines, fight scenes, Tijuana trip, epic draft registration set piece and the surfing all make this a fun and required family surf movie.
Gary Busey’s Leroy “The Masochist” combing his hair with a fish was also epic
The surfing and water cinematography are absolutely top notch. Water stunt doubles included Peter “P.T.” Townend, Bill Hamilton, Bruce Raymond, Jackie Dunn, J Riddle, Ian Cairns and Gerry Lopez playing himself
The group were captured on film by legendary cameramen Dan Merkel, Bud Browne, George Greenough and Greg MacGillivray. Big Wednesday is the Casablanca of surf films: timeless, beautifully conceived and executed classic American cinema.
4. Bustin’ Down the Door (2009)
In the early to mid 70s a small group of feral but extremely talented Australian and South African surfers—Shaun Tomson, Mark Richards, Ian Cairns, Michael Tomson, Peter Townend and Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, among others, assembled each winter on Oahu’s North Shore to surf the best waves and fight tooth and nail to become the world’s best surfers.
In the process they invented the modern era of professional surfing and managed to disrespect Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian surfers brilliant but more staid surfing epitomized power, style, flow, speed, courage and honor. This brilliant and moving unflinchingly film tells that story–no holds barred.
With the help of an insightful and contemplative Barry “B.K.” Kanaiaupuni (who is the lead storyteller on the Hawaiian side as well as Jeff Hackman and other North Shore stalwarts), Bustin’ Down the Door portrays the compelling and emotional tale of how surfing’s pro pioneers became victims of their own hubris and end up finding their own humility and humanity.
Surfers are generally unable to examine themselves honestly, but watching Rabbit discuss his childhood poverty is stirring. Combined with the observations by Hawaiian surf veterans of this tale, Bustin’ Down the Door is great and essential filmmaking. As a grom in the 70s all these guys were my heroes (they still are) and the surfing itself still holds up for its timeless beauty, radicalism, originality and precision.
5. Riding Giants (2004)
Riding Giants, Bustin’ Down the Door and Dogtown are about as close to the definitive historical and social texts on surfing as you’ll find. In Riding Giants, Stacy Peralta shows what it is like to be in a wild ocean and more importantly it goes deep into two of surfing’s legends and heroes–Greg Noll and Laird Hamilton, as well as Maverick’s pioneer Jeff Clark, and Hamilton’s tow partner Dave Kalama (a great surfer in his own right).
The footage is incredible, the personalities, stories and histories are compelling and the film once again benefits from Peralta’s expert direction and production value. If you can find and read William Finnegan’s amazing “Playing Doc’s Games” from The New Yorker”, after you see this, Bustin Down the Door and Dogtown, then you’ve hit the surfing trifecta.