AUSTIN, Texas — [This review was written as part of KENS 5's coverage of the SXSW 2022 Film Festival. The movie is now available to stream on HBO Max.]
Much is made of the line separating flair and precision in the early vignettes of “Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off” that the legendary athlete could probably pick up a board and grind on it.
As a lanky young kid beginning to compete in Southern California’s skate parks in the late-’70s, few took him seriously. He lacked the muscle to pull off the most impressive tricks, and the fact his father organized many of the showdowns drew skepticism. What they didn’t know is that skateboarding wasn’t just some casual hobby for Hawk; it was a newfound way for him to prove himself, to commit to something bigger and better than the weirdness of being far and away the youngest sibling in his family. So instead of showing off on the ramps, he began chipping away, chipping away, chipping away—quietly fine-tuning a prowess that would later give rise to dozens of tricks the sport had never seen before.
The aptly named “Until the Wheels Fall Off” operates in a similar way. Director Sam Jones’s first feature documentary in 20 years ago presents an encyclopedically thorough account of Hawk’s life in tried-and-true fashion, employing upwards of a dozen floating heads and the steady rhythm reminiscent of a skateboarder flying up and down vertical ramps like a human metronome. Liberal use of familiar punk-rock hits give it enough energy to help you ignore the occasional stop-start of narrative momentum, as well as the suspicion that Jones rarely gets as close to Hawk’s personal life as he indicates he might like to.
In certain respects the filmmaker plays it safe stylistically when his subject did anything but, though that isn’t to say “Until the Wheels Fall Off” needed to break new ground the way Hawk did on ramps set up in local parks and backyards, at arenas and overseas competitions, over buildings and moving cars. Neither man nor documentary seemingly has anything to prove at this point, though it’s when Jones’s chronicle collides with a present-day Hawk at a crossroads that he discovers the most poignant material. Hawk’s toothpick-thin adolescent frame is where this origin story begins; as it turns out, it remains a massive factor in its later chapters.
“Until the Wheels Fall Off” is a pensive documentary more than a triumphant one, and we get an early hint as to how when watching Hawk, grey-haired and in his 50s, in a context he’s not typically associated with: failure. In a quiet, lonely indoor skate park, he falls over and over again while trying to pull off one last 900, the barrier-shattering feat he first accomplished at the 1999 X Games. The determination rings loud, but the cries of pain ring louder. We’re not used to grimacing while watching Hawk, but in light of everything that’s to come, this startling opening scene comes to be the bedrock for both newfound appreciation and newfound concern.
That this odyssey about assumed weaknesses becoming a greatest strength begins as frank as it does allows us to build a sturdy emotional foundation for what Jones is ultimately getting at through two hours of routine sibling testimony and reflections from Hawk’s peers (that many of those beanie-wearing former skaters have so much to say about the man who rose above all of them results in observation both poetic and hilarious, especially from an F-bomb-spitting Duane Peters). Rest assured Jones makes the most of the piles of archival footage he surely collected for “Until the Wheels Fall Off”; it’s enlightening not only to watch an unassuming young Tony speaking calmly with reporters, but to realize how his everyman candor didn’t erode after decades in the spotlight.
The effects of time play into the movie’s hand via other ways. In one of the most memorable sequences, a relaxed reunion of Hawk’s old team, the Bones Brigade, at a massive ramp to recreate stylish images from a halcyon era becomes a gut-punch in the present one as he continuously goes higher, further and faster, culminating in near-disaster. By this point, a by-the-numbers doc has become something much more pressing as we learn how Hawk’s relationship with skateboarding only goes as far as he’s willing to push himself.
An uneasy connection is thus made between total self-disregard and superstar status (“Jackass Forever” could have been the working title once upon a time), and Jones understandably hesitates to fully endorse it. His dual roles as fan and therapist conjures up a much-needed earnestness in the final stretch of “Until the Wheels Fall Off,” which surely would have played to a different tune had it been made in 2002 or 2042.
But in the self-interrogation of the final scenes, what the 2022 version provides is a simmering urgency and psychological texture that goes far beyond the world of skate parks and flips. What makes Tony Hawk Tony Hawk isn’t so much the historic feats he accomplishes, Jones ultimately proves, as the grit and pain he insists on enduring along the way.
Even a splintered board just needs four wheels to work, I suppose.
"Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off" is not rated. It's scheduled to release on HBO Max April 5. Runtime: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Featuring: Tony Hawk, Stacy Peralta, Rodney Mullen, Lance Mountain
Directed by Sam Jones