Stacy Peralta is right to point out, as he does midway through his new documentary Riding Giants, that more bad movies have been made about surfing than perhaps any other sport. But the beach-blanket love stories, the cock-rock “surf videos,” the late spate of documentaries that got it all wrong (like last year’s sappy Step Into Liquid)—all of them are forgiven with Peralta’s cinematic history of big-wave surfing. Riding Giants demonstrates a flair not just for surf-film but for sports storytelling on the whole—an understanding of athletics not merely as competition, but as a subculture, as a personal compulsion, and as the stuff of ineluctable narrative drive. Finally, someone has made a surfing film for both people who don’t surf and people who do.
Peralta won acclaim for his captivating 2001 doc Dogtown and Z-Boys, about a passel of fucked-up California kids who became the superstars of skateboarding in the 1970s, and it’s hard not to compare the two projects. Giants never attains the fevered psychological poetry of Dogtown, though, and it doesn’t aspire to. This is simply a fan’s notes on a beloved subject, and as such it resembles, if anything, the films of Ken Burns—peppered with anecdotes, peopled with sympathetic characters, and stoked by a geeky enthusiasm that can’t help but endear.
Through gently panned-over photos (one of many debts to Burns) and home-movie footage, Peralta traces the graceful arc of the sport, its culture, and its icons. And it’s in this last respect—in the interviews with surfing’s living legends—that Riding Giants draws its strongest cinematic flow, as nearly each figure seems worthy of his own athletic biopic. There’s Greg Noll, the down-and-out daredevil who ended up making millions selling surfboards; there’s Jeff Clark, the soft-spoken Californian who for decades surfed the neck-breaking reef of Mavericks alone, until finally revealing his secret in 1990; and there’s Laird Hamilton, Peralta’s undisputed leading man, the disadvantaged kid who grew up to become a surfer of such preternatural skill that no wave seemed challenging enough until, in the film’s climax, he takes on Tahiti’s bone-crushing barrel of surf, Teahupoo.
As was the case with Peralta’s last film, though, the only failing in Riding Giants is what’s left out. Peralta blind-sided viewers of Dogtown with the second-reel revelation that—surprise—he was one of those fucked-up California kids who became the Z-Boys. This time, it’s more than a little off-putting to learn that Hamilton, who Peralta treats with the hushed awe of a hagiographer, is also Riding Giants’ executive producer. What keeps Stacy Peralta’s sports stories from becoming pitch-perfect documentaries, it seems, is the niggling sense that they’d rather be vanity projects.