You do not need to be interested in surfing to be excited and moved by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s excellent, eloquent documentary “Momentum Generation,” which premieres Tuesday on HBO. A surf film might not be the first thing you’d expect to bring you repeatedly to tears, but I can say with authority it is possible.
Even to a casual observer, there is something especially marvelous, occasionally miraculous and artful about surfing — nature makes every ride an improvisation, a sort of argumentative collaboration between the surfer and the surfed. When the waves get big — and they get Godzilla big — riding them makes no rational sense; it seems halfway to a death wish. But people do, and it is something to see.
The physical intelligence and excellence that make athletics aesthetically interesting even to those who don’t care about sports — style counts, always — are abundantly on display here. But the filmmakers’ real interest is in the ways we form of a sense of self; how friendships form, fray and heal; and what it means to lead a fulfilling life — which may have nothing to do with winning surf contests. Indeed, the price of competition, and the rewards of giving it up, is a central point of the film.
Its focus is a group of surfers — Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian, Taylor Knox, Benji Weatherley, Kalani Robb, Ross Williams, Taylor Steele and Pat O’Connell, all present, remembering their teens and 20s from their fit 40s. They bonded at the house Weatherley’s mother, Barbara, rented since 1988 on the North Shore of Oahu, overlooking the surf break known as Pipeline, which Robb calls the “most dangerous place on Earth.”
Slater, the youngest and oldest person to be named World Surf League champion (and, with 11 titles, also the winningest), is the name most people will have heard; he was on “Baywatch,” in Versace ads, on the cover of Interview and named one of People’s most beautiful people. (He has been in the news lately for co-creating a “perfect wave” machine.) All, however, are known in their world.
Even with so many characters, the story the Zimbalists tease from the material — and from what HBO describes as “tens of thousands of hours of footage in private archives” — has a solid narrative drive and focused arc, while leaving room for disagreement, ambiguity and lapses in memory.
It’s a sort of spiritual successor to Stacy Peralta’s 2001 “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” about the transformation of skateboarding by a tribe of Santa Monica Bay surf rats in the 1970s. Each film is concerned with the painful process of growing up, with what happens when things done for love become things done for money, and with finding a better family than the one you were born into. Many of the Momentum kids came from broken or abusive households. (“My way out was surfing,” says Knox, echoing a common sentiment. “Things are chaotic, go out in the ocean — which is funny because the ocean is chaotic. But I felt calm out there.”)
The group got its collective name from “Momentum,” a VHS video made by Steele, who camped out in a van in front of Weatherley’s with a camera; Slater calls it “the glue between us.” (You can find that film, which is almost 100 percent surfing set to punk rock, online; it’s oddly mesmerizing.) Steele took his films on the road with the surfer stars and soundtrack bands, including Pennywise and Blink-182, and everybody got famous.
“We were a brotherhood,” says Williams. “We had our own language for a long time. We would all just speak in weird tongues and had so many code words that were like four layers deep.”
Much hangs on the drowning death of Todd Chesser, the slightly older “moral compass” of their crowd, a pro surfer suspicious of money and fame, whose loss sent some reeling and hardened others, and whose death marked an end to carefree days and group cohesion. It is not every sports documentary in which a person says, as Weatherley does here, “Men have the hardest time with feelings and emotion; a lot of macho, a lot of ego so you never really go, ‘Let’s talk about this.’”
Another key thread is the rivalry between Slater and Machado, who met when Machado was 12 and Slater was 13 — “already a superhero,” Machado recalls. Things come to a head in a still-controversial high-five at the 1995 Pipe Masters — a 2015 piece on the surf website The Inertia called it “possibly the most iconic moment in professional surfing to date” — that was either a spontaneous act of friendly congratulations or a tactic calculated by Slater to gain an advantage. In either case, it highlighted surfing’s dual nature as contest and quest, sport and art. Slater would go on winning; Machado would pioneer “free surfing” as a career outside of competition; Dorian would devote himself to riding big waves “so that Todd would be proud of me.”
Obviously, “Momentum Generation” is but a slice of several lives and an incomplete picture of each. But it has weight and balance; it’s naturally romantic but never sentimental. Telling their tale, the crew is thoughtful and well-spoken (they do say “gnarly” a lot), affectionately rough with their memories and memories of one another. It gets dark at times, but everyone gets his due, and there is a happy ending of a sort whose point is, “You can let yourself be happy.” The film is framed with a reunion: The band is back together. It ends and begins in the water.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd