‘Skateboard’ (1978): Cult-classic indie a perfect way to ride into summer

“Hey, if it’s smooth, we’ll skate anywhere, man.”

By Paul Mavis

Sidewalk surfers rejoice—your Gone With The Wind has made it to DVD (and without GWTW‘s now-mandatory “shame lecture” at the beginning, either)! If you’re like me, when warm weather finally arrives, there’s nothing better I like to do than sit on my porch with something cold and tinkling in a glass, and watch the kids wipe out on their boards and bikes in front of my house. It reminds me of my youth (amid their agonized shrieks), when summer wasn’t summer unless you took a piece of one of your old man’s 2 x 6s and nailed some metal roller skate wheels to it…before going airborne after hitting the first 1/8th inch crack in the sidewalk (if you didn’t pick gravel out of your bleeding scrape at least once in your life, I’ve got no use for you).

Scorpion Releasing‘s Skateboard is a bonus-heavy edition of the 1978 cult-classic indie (Liberation Hall also released a DVD, after Scorpion’s went OOP)—the first big-screen movie, it’s claimed, to focus on the sport (…although Freewheelin’ came out in 1976). Co-written and directed by TV commercial director George Gage (with a screenwriting assist by future TV superstar producer, Dick Wolfe), Skateboard stars 1970s sleazebag extraordinaire Allen Garfield, Kathleen Lloyd, teenybopper heartthrob Leif Garrett, while also featuring some of the legendary icons of the sport, including Tony Alva, Jay Adams, and Ellen O’Neal. A shaggy underdog sports flick with that indefinable low-budget 70s movie vibe, Skateboard will work best for those who grew up on movies like it, and for skaters who want to see the gnarly beginnings of their sport.

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Small-time hustler Manny Bloom (Allen Garfield) has more success keeping his frizzy comb-over in place than he does at keeping his moribund talent agency afloat. Collecting unemployment in his decrepit Datsun convertible, Manny has to dodge the skaters who cruise down his steep side street, as well as avoid bill collectors and more menacing threats, such as Solly (Antony Carbone), a well-heeled gangster who’s got a nut on Manny to the tune of 10 large. Told over the phone by Solly that he better get up the cash or else, Manny, in desperation, exclaims he’s got a fool-proof method of tapping into “the youth market.” Skateboarding.

He’ll gather up a bunch of skaters, like the ones that jumped over his car that morning, put on some exhibitions, and enter them in meets, with the goal of winning 20 Gs in the Burbank Invitational Skating event. There’s only one problem: Manny is a nervous, fractious mess, constantly flying off the handle and yelling at mellow skaters Brad (Leif Garrett), Jason (Richard Van der Wyk), Tony (Tony Alva), and Randi (Pam Kenneally), all just kids who want to skate, drink beer, and fool around. Enter Millicent Broderick (Kathleen Lloyd), a nurse and surrogate mother to the kids, and a calming buffer for Manny’s sometimes toxic anxiety. Success for the newly-dubbed L.A. Wheels comes with a price, though: on the eve of the Wheels‘ greatest triumph at the Burbank Downhill Invitational, Manny is ordered to take a dive so Solly can clean up with the bookies.

I remember quite well going to see Skateboard in 1978 at the Southwyck 8 theaters, my beloved local second-run house. As with so many of the those 70s low-budget indies, the radio and TV ads were seemingly ubiquitous the week or so prior to it showing up in my smaller market, with its catchy tagline, “The Movie That Defies Gravity!” a good come-on for a 12-year-old who could barely manage to navigate his own crude skateboard down our cracked and uneven sidewalk. Watching Skateboard today, it generated nostalgia probably more for that particular time period of small indie pick-ups that would surface at cheap movie houses and the drive-ins…rather than for the movie itself.

RELATED | More 1970s movie reviews

An obvious combination of The Bad News Bears and Rocky, Skateboard certainly offers nothing new in terms of storyline, with its only novelty coming from the skateboarding angle and Garfield’s borderline scuzzy performance. From Skateboard‘s first frame, there’s never any doubt (spoiler alert) that unconventional Garfield will eventually win over his youthful charges and score big at the final tourney. So…all that’s left is enjoying Skateboard‘s atmosphere and small details that pin the movie down solidly in a laid-back, sleepy mid-70s SoCal haze.

Apparently, director George Gage went on to work in documentaries, and tellingly, those scenes in Skateboard that come closest to a documentary feel work the best here: the skating montages and some of the ad-libbed, quasi-cinema verite scenes with the kids and Garfield. But too often, scenes go on far too long (Gage, in his entertaining commentary track with Tony Alva that’s included on this disc, readily acknowledges this), or play out as ultimately pointless, ending abruptly without a payoff (the bar scene with Manny and Milly, perhaps setting up a romance that wasn’t developed?).

And don’t look for any Bad News Bears hijinks with the youthful cast, either; director Gage plays it safe with only one scene that suggests a more earthy feel-good approach by the teens in beer-drinking and Playboy-perusing. For the most part, he ignores the kids’ lives to concentrate on Garfield and his financial woes—a mistake, frankly, considering Garfield’s story is so cliched, and the skaters’ world, so new to viewers in ’78, was what interested the younger targeted audience). Along with Garfield’s nervy performance, the skating montages are the movie’s highlights, to be sure, and fans of the sport will get a kick out of the primitive gear and low-tech stunts that are attempted here (check out that cheap foam-rubber helmet!). Frustratingly, though, two of the movie’s best stunts—jumping over Manny’s car and Alva’s flip out of a swimming pool—are muffed by poor camera placement. That kind of sloppy construction keeps Skateboard from ever achieving lift-off.

Garfield, who cornered the market on shady, sometimes grotesque supporting characters in 70s cinema (his comedic turn in the earlier Mother, Jugs & Speed is Oscar-worthy and one of my favorites from that decade), resists the temptation to turn all soft and cuddly like Matthau in The Bad News Bears (or Lloyd’s predictable-but-well done turn here as the mother figure nurse). Garfield’s Manny is a creep with a heart of gold, but just because the team starts winning doesn’t mean he’s suddenly transformed. Even when he’s apologizing to the kids in the final act, he comes across as intriguingly insincere. Add to that just the physical sight of Garfield in his too-tight polyester shirts and his wild Bozo the Clown comb-over, forever frizzing off into space, and you have a performance, frankly, that deserved a better vehicle…or moviemakers with a little more experience.

A quick note about the extras on Scorpion’s release of Skateboard. Lots of goodies for the Skateboard freak. First up is a full-length commentary track with the director and Tony Alva. Both are entertaining discussing the production of Skateboard, with Alva coming off particularly well with his cogent observations about the characters and themes in the movie. There are three interviews with Alva, Gage and the two together. Alva’s runs 17:03, and he’s well-spoken, not only about his experiences filming Skateboard, but also about his life today (in 2010) and his position as skateboarding’s “Godfather.” Director Gage’s interview lasts 13:14, adding some additional information on the movie’s production, while their joint interview, running 5:16, seems more like an excuse to film the two together, rather than add anything new to what they’ve both already covered in their commentary and separate interviews. Finally, the original theatrical trailer is included (that came immediately back to me). That’s an impressive collection of extras for this small-gauge cult flick.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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