Rollin’ Through The Decades

Rollin Through The Decades

Rollin’ Through The Decades is a documentary on UK skateboarding from the 70’s through present days. The 2000’s have been the decade of the skateboard documentary mostly due to the influence of Fruit of the Vine and of course the ubiquitous Dogtown and the Z-boys. Since then we’ve seen documentaries on pool skating, Duane Peters, skateboard companies, tattoos and skateboards, etc… Someone is probably out there right now putting the final edit on the next skate documentary. Are you sick of them yet? Rollin Through the Decades stands out from the crowd as one of the better documentaries to date partially because of the freshness of the subject matter. Simply put, Rollin Through The Decades is Dogtown with out ego stroke and historical agenda. In retrospect, the subject matter of Dogtown and the Z-boys sometimes gets overshadowed by the feeling that you are being force fed a mythology for the sake of making sure a crew gets respect and acknowledgement for it’s accomplishments. Rollin’ Through The Decades is a much more laid back affair concerned only with presenting a comprehensive history of skateboarding in the UK. The legends and egos take a back seat to the scene. The mere fact that I’m prattling on about Dogtown would be part of the problem were it not for the fact that Dogtown movie paraphernalia makes several cameos in Rollin’. In a pinch I’d rate Rollin’ right up there with Fruit of the Vine and slightly above Dogtown because it’s more unbiased and untainted by ego and the media saturation. Rollin is a feature length film, so it’s not a typical skate video per se, but you can still get your skate action fix from it. The point you need to take home is that you need to take home this DVD. If you’ve got some time to kill you can keep reading my overblown review. When I’m hard on it, it’s only because this film is of a higher caliber in quality and expectations than your average skateboard film, so I hold it to higher standards.

This online publication originally started as a zine back in the 80’s by myself and a friend Neil who was a visitor from England with a shadowy visa status and a love of skateboarding. We were introduced by his girlfriend (American, of course) and immediately hit it off because, well, we both skated. A lot. Neil was literally fresh off the plane, arriving at his welcoming party with skateboard in hand. Neil’s skateboard was some a sub-par Action Sports Invader that was covered in xeroxed paper stickers for skate companies, punk bands and zines. Because he could not locate them in his home town, he had hand-fabricated wooden rails that were painted red. Whether due to dedication or obsession, I was severely impressed. Part of what makes Rollin’ so interesting is the freshness of the scene. The geography aside, the scene has always been smaller and more connected than the States. Two of the biggest problems with skating in the UK are the rough streets compared to your average US street, and the weather. Even in the summer skating cannot be taken for granted because it’s not unheard of it to rain for the entire season. If you skated through some of the dark periods in the US, or were part of an isolated skate outpost in the Midwest somewhere you can only imagine how dedicated you had to be in the UK, even more so when you consider the added expense and difficulty in obtaining the gear. To be sure, things have certainly changed for the better with the rise of the internet and the European companies and pros stepping up. The point is, The UK scene was like the US scene if you stuck it in a pot and boiled off some of the fad and excess water. Or maybe like dehydrated fruit, the taste is still similar but it’s more dense. Or maybe it’s like NASA space ice cream, or maybe I’m just hungry and write bad analogies.

Rollin’ starts off a little shaky. You almost don’t realize that it’s started, or you feel like it started playing a couple minutes into the film. Then comes the standard dictionary-type definition of skateboarding on the screen followed by some grainy film of surfing. Your first reaction may be to prepare yourself for another cookie cutter documentary on the origins of skateboarding, but you’ll only have to stay focused for a short bit. Ultimately the film is more imaginative than the first couple of minutes. The film spends some time talking about the origins of skate history in general before settling down to talk specifics about the UK scene. As the title suggests, Rollin’ is loosely broken into decades of skateboarding starting with the 70’s. There is a wealth of 8mm footage that is varied and quite good, rivaling anything you saw in Dogtown, if not better. Part of the reason for this probably has to do with the fact that the director did not have to limit himself to footage of a handful of skaters and was free to show whatever he wanted. You’ll be amazed by some of the quality of the footage and even the skating. One scene of interest showed a massive public pool cordoned off with tires for a public skate session with loads of people carving around the banked surfaces. Amazing! You’ll get to see some kickflips (the original non-ollie kind) and even a Gorilla Grip. The scene seemed less glamour driven than the US was, something that seemed to hold constant through the years. It seems so trivial, but at the time they didn’t even have tube socks, had to wear weird bib overalls because there were few functional alternatives. There is a definite fashion disparity, highlighted by footage of some pseudo mod-looking skaters wearing corduroy trousers and argyle sweaters. I guess preppy would be a better description, but not U.S. Izod and Polo shirt preppy. The film shows the results of the short 70’s skate park boom too with plenty of footage and stills from British skate magazine adverts, newspaper stories, and newsletters. Apparently some parks were built near bomb sites still left over from World War II. Although many of these outdoor parks were simply left abandoned after the bust, the indoor ones were torn down. One park in particular, Rolling Thunder looked amazing even by today’s standards. It seemed to be half lunar landscape and half amusement park ride. One thing missing from this millennium’s parks is the free formed bumps, mogul fields and snake run type settings. I have nothing against coping, but if someone were to build one I’m sure people would be surprised at how fun they could be. Eventually as the popularity waned, the British tabloids decided skateboarding was dangerous and made it a sort of cause celebre, killing it outright for all but the underground.

In the 80’s there were some new parks, vert ramps, visiting American pros, and of course the fashion and pirate skateboarders. Then there is the uniquely English Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents! Somehow or other they decided to get involved in promoting skateboarding and contests in the U.K. Sometimes the government seems more like that of a local small town than that of a major world power. I remember seeing a World Championship contest being advertised or written about in Transworld and being somewhat confused because it seemed like they were just holding a regular California contest and calling it a World Championship, since there was no world circuit to speak of. It turns out this was the brainchild of English Skateboarding Association (ESA) chair Derry Thompson. The ESA was almost an exact copy of our own NSA, promoting skateboarding by running a series of contests for the kids. Through another uniquely English system of grants, the ESA was able to get money to bring a group of skaters to the US to compete in a “World” championship. Derry talked the folks at Tracker/Transworld into sticking two words in front of the contest name and got free airfare and expense money in a truly brilliant scam. The ESA was able to take ungrateful kids around Europe as well, echoing the theme that skateboarding has helped many kids expand their horizons through travel and brotherhood that they otherwise may not have experienced. Another interesting tidbit, ESA newsletter was the first ever typeset publication in Europe made with a personal computer. Thompson was the UK distributor for the Macintosh and had exclusive access to beta software and machines before they were made available to the public.

The DIY punk ethic was still going strong in the UK as evidenced by the zines that sprung up. The film also documents the birth of RAD magazine (Read and Destroy!) . Tim Leighton-Boyce was an original staffer for UK magazine Skateboard! In the 70’s. When the publishers pulled the plug and switched to BMX, Tim continued to work a s a photographer. As skateboarding began to grow in the 80’s he would sneak in skateboarding until with the help of a friend, he was able to convince them to start the oversized publication RAD, which had skateboarding as it’s main focus. Back to the Future brought skateboarding to the public eye again for a second boom. American pros began to make the UK a frequent stop. Then somehow, skateboarding began to die in the UK as spots and parks got closed down and the industry faded.

The 90’s brought more ridiculous fashions and the death of vert. Tech skating took over alienating anyone who didn’t fall in line and act like a robot. For a brief time there was a beacon in the form of London Bridge skate park, built in some old theatre complex that had a weird decrepit goth vibe to it. It seems like a lot of English skateparks were built inside what looks like old subway tunnels from the 30’s. London Bridge was unique in that it brought together skaters of all ages and styles to cohabitate in a white hot spot. It shut down due to the all too familiar trait of having sketchy ownership and management. This park closing killed the scene. Another potential scene focuser opened but due to bizarre circumstances was only allowed to be open for about 1 and a half days a week! The landlords decided they would rather lease to someone else than deal with the public demand for more accessibility. Guess who invented slapping your tail on the coping to show appreciation? Not some guy in California, but a Brit named Dave Allen. Witness footage of kids acting like crazed gorillas smacking their boards on anything and everything.

The current decade is documented as well, mostly with complaints about all the crappy parks being built in the UK and a somewhat bizarre request for a governing agent. The film was made in 2004 and released in 2005, so hopefully things are changing. Skaters for Public Skateparks is now international and should be on the way to fulfilling some of the needs, and I’ve heard the there is at least one park in production by Dreamland. There is some commentary on how skateboarding has blown up world wide and soft goods are now driving the industry since it’s now hip to dress like a skateboarder. Other people talk about the progression of the sport and the convergence of styles. This section is more concerned with aspects of skating that aren’t necessarily unique to the UK.

A common theme throughout Rollin’ is the scene located at a spot called South Banks. If you’re not already familiar with it you’ve probably seen pictures of it without realizing it. South Banks is part of a cultural center in London that through the design of the surrounding architecture and routing or pedestrian traffic became sort of protected haven from the elements and natural spot for skating. Built in the late 60’s, the original development didn’t go exactly as planned and the space was largely unused. When local skaters started to flock there in 70’s, management decided to let them have at it. As time progressed, the relationship with skaters seesawed back and forth in an uneasy truce. Skating was sometimes tolerated, sometimes targeted for extinction. The DVD has some excellent 3D animations that sere as the main navigational device and show up in different parts of the film. In the 90’s railings were installed in front of banks and the run ups had grooves chisel in to discourage the skaters. While it cut down on the average use, some of the more skilled skaters were able to adapt by ollieing over them rails, sometimes they would rebelled by cutting them down and throwing them in the river. More recently, the powers that be have begun to accept skateboarding as part of the surrounding culture that a cultural center should embrace instead of alienate. Commercial Director of the South Bank centre Mike McCart is featured on camera throughout the film and seems to have an enlightened attitude about positive public relations. He is very forthcoming about the attitudes of the past generations of management. South Bank is an important identifiable signature of the UK scene. Recent renovations and construction have threatened to displace the skateboarders for good, but it appears that the management remains committed at some level to incorporating them for the long term.

Rollin’ Through the Decades documents a unique scene and it does it well. At two hours long it’s almost too much for one sitting and might be better viewed a decade at a time. Apparently it is being broadcast that way in Europe in a limited release. The film does not have a constant narrator, instead opting to present subjects on camera providing narration through their stories and showing action split screen. The footage is visually interesting and widely varied and Rollin’ does not re-loop the same shots again and again. You’ll be amused by the quintessential UK-isms such as guys with names like Wig Worland or Yogi Proctor, and the aptly titled publication “Successful Skateboarder”. There are 117 skaters featured in this film some of who you might recognize, such as Steve Douglas, Jeremy Henderson, Sean Goff, Don Brown, Bod Boyle, Mark & Barry Abrook, Danny Webster, Lucien Hendricks, Phil Bourgoyne, Justin Ashby, and Sue Hazel who recently appeared in one of the North American magazines, I think it was Juice or Concrete Wave. Some other names like Ben Jobe are probably more recognizable to those with better name retention or who live across the pond. Noticeably absent from speaking parts are Geoff Rowley and Danny Webster. Webster had a model on G&S in the 80’s for crying out loud! (While we’re keeping track of 80’s UK riders with signature models on US companies‚ Danny Webster had 2 on G&S, Bod Boyle had one on Santa Cruz, Sean Goff had 2 on Brand X, Steve Douglas had a couple on Schmitt Stix. and Lucien Hendricks had one on Dogtown.) The DVD also has 38 minutes of deleted scenes, and most of these scenes are essential viewing such as the origins of 411Magazine and a great skate harassment bit wherein skateboarders were not allowed in a public facility to buy food and beverages or use the restrooms simply because they had skateboards! Other features in the extras include the prerequisite trailers and photo still gallery. There is a 16 minute feature on the UK screening tour too. If I had a major complaint about Rollin’ it would be that there is no chapter selection in the DVD menu, something that would be useful in a feature like this. It would also have been nice to have the option to play the whole movie with the deleted scenes included since they are as interesting and well conceived as every other section of the final cut. Unfortunately, there is no North American distributor for Rollin’. The version for sale on the UK web site is Region 0, PAL format. I was able to watch it on a computer however, otherwise you’ll need a DVD player with PAL capabilities. If you are scratching your head now, TV’s stateside are in NTSC format. Bequarr Productions is currently looking for a U.S. distributor, so hopefully you will be able to buy it here soon. The appeal of Rollin’ Through The Decades is broader than U.K.. Make a point to look for it.

Update: Distributor found for New Zealand and Australia. Being released on DVD July
27th 2006. Launch party in the works. Madman Entertainment: www.madman.com.au

Online Action: www.rollinthroughthedecades.com

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