'Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off' Chronicles the Life of a Legend - Knotfest

‘Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off’ Chronicles the Life of a Legend

Posted by Nicolás Delgadillo in Culture on April 19, 2022

The HBO documentary shows the willpower and drive of the famous skateboard hero.

Until the Wheels Fall Off, the latest documentary from filmmaker Sam Jones, opens on one of those raw and “real” moments that only documentaries are able to capture. A middle aged man is toiling away at an indoor half-pipe, riding his skateboard up and down and up again to gather enough speed for a series of difficult spins. He shoots up into the air, makes the attempt, only to crash or slide back down. 

He does this over and over, falling hard and getting back up to try it again. Each failure seems to only galvanize him more. He goes up, starts the spins, crashes. Eventually, the repeated failures get to him. After one nasty tumble back down the ramp, he suddenly cries out in pain and frustration. “Fuck!” He lies there on the floor for a bit, covering his face, perhaps contemplating whether to keep trying or not. The camera lingers on the skateboard lying nearby. The man finally gets back on his feet and grabs the board, ready to go again. The wheels never stopped spinning.

The man is Tony Hawk and even if you don’t know a single thing about skateboarding or the people who do it, you know who Tony Hawk is. The most famous skateboarder in the world has spent decades taking the sport to the next level and bringing it to the mainstream, continues to invent countless new tricks and techniques, and keeps inspiring more than one generation of future riders. Until the Wheels Fall Off attempts to chronicle the now 53 year-old’s life and career, from a scrawny and restless child to a superstar athlete and pop culture icon.

A young Tony Hawk

The documentary’s opening scene is a rare display of true emotion for Hawk, whose public image and persona usually offers him up as a friendly and nonchalant guy without real ego or even edge to him. To see him genuinely angry and upset about something is a different side to the man that many of us have known since we were kids ourselves. But the way his tenacity is what ultimately breaks through that moment of defeat? That’s 100% Tony Hawk. While there’s not really any other moment quite as revealing as that intro, it does get to the heart of what makes Hawk tick and what has made him the best – his relentless determination to keep trying, to keep getting back up and back on the board to go another round.

Jones’ film follows Hawk’s upbringing as a young boy in California with too much energy and not enough direction, who finds purpose and salvation once he hops on the board as a preteen. Of course, the realization of how important skateboarding would be for Hawk wouldn’t hit him until later in life. As he recalls the very first time he tried to ride a skateboard, he remembers that it wasn’t anything akin to immediate inspiration or anything like that. Instead, the only thing the kid was thinking was “Oh, this is hard.” For a kid like Hawk, what skateboarding represented was a physical and mental challenge to overcome. Decades later, it’s still challenging him, which is probably why he’s stuck with it for as long as he has.

As the doc goes through Hawk’s time joining the Bones Brigade skating team and starting to win his first pro matches, it steadily unveils his secret: Hawk’s real talent lies in the fact that he will just work at whatever it is he wants to work at until he gets it. It’s pretty uncomplicated when it comes down to it. His mind has to and will and does figure out whatever the obstacle is, no matter how many attempts it takes. It’s a drive that’s almost scary – Hawk takes slams like nobody’s business, smacking every bit of his body onto the hard concrete but always too determined to let it slow him down.

Tony Hawk today

Thanks to a plethora of archived footage and interviews with Hawk, his Bones Brigade teammates and other pro skaters, as well as a couple of siblings, we see Hawk’s unrelenting drive leads to his rise to fame and adoration in the 90s into the 2000s, when skateboarding explodes into a full-blown phenomenon. Hawk plays a massive part in that thanks to not simply his rank as a pro but also a series of endorsement deals (like his video game deal with Activision) that basically makes him the face of the sport itself.

Until the Wheels Fall Off presents Hawk’s story in a rather standard documentary way, which can sometimes feel lacking in the kind of excitement that matches the speed and stunts of a skateboarding competition or the freedom of a solo skate. That said, the momentous feat of Hawk landing the first documented 900 trick on live television (another rare outburst of emotion from the athlete) feels successfully built up with tension. We see Hawk work himself to death trying to land what almost everyone thought was impossible, and it’s incredible to see and feel the reaction from both the crowd and Hawk himself when it finally happens. 

The film shies away from what could arguably be the most interesting period of Hawk’s life. He fell hard into the world of being a celebrity and that fame (which he calls “the worst drug”) would ruin his personal life. This section of things is largely kept private – Hawk is gratefully candid on camera but brief on the subject of his turbulent home life, and the film quickly moves on to today, leaving an understandable but still glaring gap in a not insignificant chunk of Hawk’s life. You lose a good bit of  getting into who the subject really is and it can feel like you’re missing a part of the whole picture. It leaves Hawk, once again, to feel emotionally distant for the most part. 

Thankfully, the emotional duties are left to Bones Brigade teammate Rodney Mullen, who delivers a genuinely profound speech while being interviewed that gives the film its title. Duane Peters, who Hawk bests in his first ever pro match and who comes across as more than a little rough around the edges, lands the film’s biggest emotional payoff in an unexpected way. But the true emotional core of the doc is Hawk’s father, Frank Peter Rupert Hawk, who encouraged and supported his son in ways that went above and beyond. Creating a legacy all his own in helping found the National Skateboarding Association, Frank’s story is one of genuine, painstaking love, and Jones’ film wisely puts the appropriate focus on it.

Even those unfamiliar with skateboarding will find Hawk’s career to be a fascinating one. While lacking in some areas, the film still manages to nail the hard work and triumph that goes into the sport’s endless tricks and stunts. Hawk is a legend, and while this documentary may be more invested in that rather than what makes him a human, it’s still a dazzling story worth telling.

‘Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Come Off’ is now streaming on HBO Max.

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