Sometimes, the things that we struggle with can be our salvation. There’s a crazy calm in that chaos, the frantic and frenzied quest to “get it right,” whatever it may be. It takes time, but when you find the thing that demands all of your focus, your dedication to it can catapult you to new heights—but it can also permanently change you for the worse, too, whether or not you want to fully acknowledge it. So goes the story of Tony Hawk, famous to most for his name being before the words “Pro Skater” (the title of his legendary videogame series). The prolific athlete is the best-known and most accomplished skateboarder in the world, and his career has been a storied journey to greatness. As with a lot of famous people and their crafts, the general public only really knows half the battle in Hawk’s quest to conquer the art of skateboarding. They don’t know the toll this life, and the deep devotion within it, has taken on the skater’s mind, body and emotions of his loved ones. That’s where Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off comes in. Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off is a reckoning of passion told by those who best understand the price of that love story: Hawk, his loved ones and his peers on the board.
The new HBO Max documentary from director Sam Jones follows Hawk’s career from his small-fry childhood to his competitive skater days to his world-champion, biggest-in-the-game dominance to now. It is a fully-fledged journey through the athlete’s hopes, dreams, fears, obstacles and reflections. The film relies on the typical documentary stylings—never-before-seen archival footage, photographs and new first-hand interviews with the subject and others important to his story—but it’s a major asset to this film even if the tactic might seem tired in others. Despite knowing my fair share about early skate culture, especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it was really discovering itself and what it would become, the typical docu-methods used in this film felt less stale and overused to me than they might have without a prodigal story to build on. The never-before-seen footage of Hawk trying his hand at different ramps and bowls throughout his childhood and adolescence is exciting at its base in the same way that it’s exciting to watch a sport you love. But when you add in the fact that you’re watching a legend at his inception, it makes the clips that much more incendiary. They feel like they’re on fire while you watch them, and the accompanying interview commentary that walks you through Hawk’s emotional and physical struggles on and off the board throughout his come-up only adds to the rush of excitement you feel watching him become a master of his field.
The interviews are particularly enlightening as they narrate the trajectory of the film. Hawk isn’t afraid to speak frankly about what brought him to where he is today—particularly, a feeling of alienation and otherness in his childhood that skateboarding helped placate through the Bones Brigade, a childhood team he was a part of—or about the state of his body after years and years of hard impact on ramps and concrete. He’s also not afraid to get emotional and vulnerable and introspective. Neither are his peers. Guys like Lance Mountain and Rodney Mullen open up to an incredible degree regarding not only the reality of Hawk’s life in his 50s and the consequences of his success, but also about their own toxic love affairs with the sport. Their passion, much like Hawk’s, shines brightly. Hawk and his contemporaries are quick to remind you that they are disciples of the board to the end, but you don’t need them to tell you that to know it. It’s lovely and warm to watch, even in its harshest confrontations and contemplations.
The best thing about the movie, however—even more than the poignant and heartfelt interviews the film relies upon—is the footage that quietly bookends it, which ends up putting that whole “disciples” idea into action. In the beginning of the film, we watch as, silently, present-day Hawk works on the 900, the toughest skate trick he’s ever been able to do. The trick is far from an easy learn, as it consists of a 900 degree aerial spin on an ramp during which the skater makes two and a half turns before landing on his downward foot to ride the trick out. Hawk is about as technically skilled as it gets, but even he just fails and fails and fails. But he also gets up and gets up and gets up. Finally, he breaks the silence after a rough fall and screams. Two falls later, he lays there, taking a while to get up as the wheels of his overturned board spin like a whip cracked. Finally, the title card hits.
He doesn’t pull the trick off until the end of the film. He tries and fails a few times before landing it beautifully, gliding against the deepest part of the ramp in his finish like a bird flying along water. It’s epic and fulfilling, and you feel the vast meaning of the physical motion, how it transcends that physicality to be something bigger: A beautiful, infinite memory for Hawk, his loved ones and his peers. In the movie’s final moments, on-screen text reveals that Hawk has retired the trick—for now. But that doesn’t matter. In fact, it doesn’t matter if he never does it again at all. It doesn’t matter because he’s already proven to himself that he can, and that means more than anything. Hawk’s older brother remarks early in the film that the skater would become angry in his trial-and-error sessions, morphing into someone wholly unlike himself until he finally nailed the move he was desperate to perfect. It’s as if what was most important wasn’t the ability to do the trick, but the ability to persevere until it was achieved. Once he proved to himself that he had that in him, the frustration melted away. At this point in his career, his whole life has mirrored that struggle: He’s done the trick, now it can just melt away into memory.
Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off is exactly what it tells you it’s going to be. Hawk’s sentiment—as well as the overwhelming sentiment of his peers—is that this is what he was always going to be doing: Riding until the end. Whether the future sees those wheels physically crumble off Hawk’s board or a more metaphorical collapse as his physical health wanes, what we do know is that Hawk and his friends will keep riding toward their futile sunset, one beautiful and painful in equal measure. They know what they’ve done and continue to do to their bodies and they look back on the moments that started that deterioration with pride. It’s hard not to let that poetic optimism bleed into your own psyche, applying it to the things in your life that light you up the most. Hawk’s story is inspirational, but it’s the story of decline as much as it is growth. That decline is on the horizon for Hawk, but he’s not quite there yet, and this relatable yet grand documentary touches every corner of the singular spirit that keeps this athlete chasing his high in a deeply human way. We’re all going to die of something; for Hawk, it might as well be skating.
Director: Sam Jones
Release Date: April 4, 2022 (HBO)
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer who eats, sleeps, and breathes exceptional horror, sweeping dramas, and top-notch acting. She is a news desk writer at /Film and has bylines at FANGORIA, The Guardian, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET. She tweets @nikonamerica.