This review was first published on March 12, after the film’s premiere at the 2022 SXSW festival.
“Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off” opens with a montage of failures. Hawk, now in his 50s and easily the most famous skateboarder of all time, is trying to land a 900. To pull the trick off, he has to complete two and a half aerial spins, essentially hurtling himself and his skateboard through several mid-air somersaults before landing neatly back on a wooden ramp.
Hawk already landed this trick, over two decades ago at the 1999 X Games. He is reportedly the first to ever successfully do so. It was a feat akin to Tonya Harding’s triple axel or Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10. Yet here Hawk is, relentlessly determined to do it again.
He flings himself across an indoor ramp, slamming into the wood over and over as he blunders each attempt. The film’s opening titles begin over a shot of Hawk’s upended skateboard, wheels still spinning in the foreground. Hawk sits at the back of the frame, his head hanging low.
This documentary by Sam Jones (“Off Camera,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”) chronicles Hawk’s prodigious, at times challenging, skateboarding career, but it also analyzes its subject with a keen psychological eye. Why is this man, after nearly 40 years of unbelievable success, still risking his life to break records?
Lance Mountain, one of Hawk’s peers, probably says it best: “Tony is competing against Tony. He’s always been competing against Tony.”
Through a series of interviews with Hawk, as well as his family, friends and peers, Jones dissects that perfectionism. Maybe it came about because Hawk’s mother, who had him at 43, would regularly refer to him as a “mistake.” Maybe it’s just an inherent part of success. Maybe — and this is very much my personal theory, not the documentary’s — Tony Hawk is like this because he is a Taurus.
Whatever the reason, “Until the Wheels Fall Off” feels less about Hawk, the person, and more about this particular neurosis. That might be because Hawk makes for a withholding interview subject, speaking stoically about his father’s death and referring to his own recovery in a rehab facility, perhaps the documentary’s most personal aside, as a time when “I checked myself into a place.” There are mentions of his tumultuous personal life, including his struggles with infidelity and his regrets as a father, but Wikipedia can ultimately tell you more about Hawk’s past marriages than this documentary can.
That’s not a knock against Hawk. He has a complex relationship to notoriety and seems sympathetically uncomfortable in the role of documentary subject. Even in middle age, his characteristically sunken eyes adorned with wrinkles and his floppy hair streaked with gray, it’s difficult not to associate the aloof Hawk with joyful, childlike recklessness.
For millennials, he heralded in the early-aughts glory days of Mountain Dew, the X Games and “Tony Hawk’s Underground” video games. For Gen X, he was a fixture in Thrasher magazine and Bones Brigade VHS tapes. “Until the Wheels Fall Off” captures and celebrates those eras in Hawk’s career and in the history of skateboarding more generally.
Still, “Until the Wheels Fall Off” works better as a humanistic exploration than it does as a biography, making its Hawk focus occasionally feel like a weakness. Editor Greg Finton (“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”) does an admirable job with scores of interviews and archival material, but the film can still feel jumpy as it whips from broader topics, like the video boom or skate-park demolitions, to personal minutiae. This documentary is at its strongest when it is most contemplative, particularly toward the end, as Hawk’s peers ponder why, after years of damaging his body by skateboarding, he’s doing more extreme tricks than ever.
That is where the film’s standout voice, Rodney Mullen, gets to shine. Mullen, a freestyle skateboarder who prefers to refer to the sport as an art form, addresses the interviewer with shining eyes and a kind voice. In an impassioned monologue that lends the documentary its name, he speaks about skateboarding with a kind of sublime reverence. Despite the bodily costs, he insists, “this is the luxury of having spent my life doing what I love.”
“I’m not going to give up until the wheels fall off,” Mullen goes on. “That’s what I’m made of. I wish I could relate the intangibles to you.”
“Until the Wheels Fall Off” also struggles to fully elucidate its more abstract concepts: freedom, passion, perfection, fearlessness, gratitude, love. That’s not for lack of trying. Jones, also the film’s cinematographer, has situated each of his subjects outdoors, often surrounded by green space, lending the project a much-needed sense of openness.
The tearjerker of a score by Jeff Cardoni (“The Kominsky Method,” “Silicon Valley”) feels at home among the soundtrack’s many rock anthems. Though Hawk is not very forthcoming, other subjects, particularly the other pro skaters, are. They try to explain the incredible, inimitable feeling that drives them, the euphoria that only comes from being brave enough to risk your life.
In the same way that Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” appears to be about a group of skateboarding friends but ultimately winds up addressing masculinity, adulthood and the cycle of abuse, “Until the Wheels Fall Off” is a film that uses skating to access some of the bigger topics on its mind. But where “Minding the Gap” smartly focuses on those deeper issues, this film somewhat muddles them with standard biographical fare.
It’s hardly a mortal sin. Hawk’s life is interesting, and despite its two-hour runtime, this doc goes down smoothly. Still, it’s difficult not to wonder how much greater it could have been if Jones, like Hawk pushing to re-perfect his greatest ever trick, had gone just a little bit further.
“Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off” premieres April 5 on HBO.