Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off Review
“Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off” is a film about the world’s most famous skateboarder, but it’s also about capturing his secret sauce. Director Sam Jones (along with executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass) devotes his attention to Hawk’s life story in order to distill its bruising examples of success and innovation, as well as the importance of not worrying about failure, even when you’ve just slammed your head against the ground trying to do something your peers consider impossible. Hawk, despite all of his medals from tournaments, does not appear to be concerned in winning. He only wants to land the trick that he has in his thoughts.
Hawk’s career is known as a brand, a cameo throughout 1990s and 2000s pop culture, a lanky person who portrays himself as friendly while still being extraordinarily, nerdily talented at what he can do. But it all stems from his days as a tenacious adolescent who, much to the chagrin of his older, bigger, and far more punk contemporaries, carved out his own niche in the burgeoning popularity of ’80s skateboarding. The way Jones fills in the picture, with former skating superstars like Duane Peters remarking about how dissatisfied they were with Hawk’s extravagant routines during competitions, or the more philosophical Rodney Mullen intellectualizing what Hawk was achieving, is part of the documentary’s interest.
Hawk’s rise to recognition and success as a skateboarder led to peaks and valleys of fame and success, which Jones includes into the story’s overall historical view of a career that thrived based on skateboarding’s popularity. Meanwhile, Hawk was further grounded by the attention on his family dynamics; he was the family’s youngest child by many years, and his father Frank Hawk not only helped to form the National Skateboarding Association, but also cast a shadow over the growing Tony. That level of accomplishment at such a young age teaches you nothing about financial responsibility.
The documentary’s music may be full of different decades of punk (with certain recognizable needle drops feeling more stock than others), but the plain manner softens the documentary’s own edges. It feels like a lot of glory days documentaries in that it looks back on a particular phenomena with a compilation of amazed statements from everyone who was present, but its storytelling approaches don’t feel as fast-paced. It’s thrilling to learn about Hawk’s beginnings and the characteristics that lead to such a successful career, but it’s telling when his story is recounted in such a basic manner.
Jones’ video shows a lot of respect for Hawk, but it doesn’t turn into a hagiography—the skateboarder is allowed time to talk about the things he didn’t accomplish well in his personal life because of his focus on skating. He talks about fame being “the worst drug,” and it’s surprising to hear such a strange star say that. However, the doc’s ability to dissect broader themes is limited, in keeping with its superficial characteristics. When the documentary tries to go deeper into the impact of skating on aging bodies, Hawk and his peers’ concluding notes become too long to be meaningful.
“Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off” shines clearest when it resembles the Alex Honnold free-climbing documentary “Free Solo,” focusing on Hawk’s experiences of hard-won failure, of repeatedly slamming his body to the ground and getting back on the board. Hawk is shown as Sisyphus on a skateboard in a riveting opening sequence, relentlessly going at the task at hand—in this case, doing another 900. Hawk, now 53 years old, jumps on the board, slides down the half-pipe, speeds up, and somehow fails to execute the mid-air spin. But he doesn’t give up on it. Watching Hawk in this documentary makes it clear that pulling off such a maneuver is more of a cerebral challenge than a physical one.