Various talking heads have more to say about legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk than he does in Sam Jones’ otherwise well-made documentary
If you’re not a skateboarding fan, you’ll likely only be aware that Tony Hawk exists, rather than anything specific about his life or accomplishments. Maybe you’ll know there’s a bunch of video games named for him, or that he appeared in a Police Academy movie. But the fact that you’ve heard of him, even if you wouldn’t know a quad deck from a cheese sandwich, speaks volumes about both his impact, and his role in bringing mainstream respect to a sport once dismissed as a pastime for bored kids and delinquents.
Sam Jones’ Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off is ostensibly a documentary about the world’s greatest skateboarder, but it’s also, perhaps unintentionally, a look at Generation X’s unique inability (chillingly, even worse than Boomers) to admit that they may be getting too old for some things. Because there seem to be some distinct lines drawn between what Hawk was and wasn’t willing to talk about on camera, this ultimately ends up being the most interesting part of an otherwise fairly rote true story about continued triumph in the face of adversity.
If ever someone seemed destined from birth for their vocation, it was Tony Hawk. Born to parents already well into middle age, he was a kid desperate to find something to direct the boundless energy and orneriness that drove his mother to threaten to flush herself down the toilet if he didn’t behave. Hawk was drawn to skateboarding, which to outsiders seemed more a contest of style than athletic prowess, and though he wasn’t a natural, exactly, his dedication and refusal to give up made him a formidable competitor, eventually beating other skaters years older than him.
That determination only grew as Hawk became older, his likable kid brother persona separating him from the California surfer dudes and surly punk rockers that were normally associated with skateboarding. Hawk didn’t just dominate the sport, he turned it into a billion dollar enterprise, with over a dozen video games, theme park rides, and the unfortunately named Boom Boom HuckJam, a touring extreme sports show, bearing his name. The name Tony Hawk is synonymous with skateboarding, and probably always will be, long after he’s gone.
But is he happy? Well, that remains to be seen.
Other than a bittersweet moment when he visits his elderly mother at a nursing home and does all the talking, and falling silent while speaking about his late father (who was much more supportive about the idea of his son becoming a professional skateboarder than most fathers would be), Hawk plays his emotions close to the vest, and it’s clear that there are some subjects he’s not comfortable discussing. Until the Wheels Fall Off ultimately suggests that Hawk might only find fulfillment and inner peace when he’s skateboarding, but if that’s the case he isn’t saying either way. Though good-humored about the whole thing, he also seems like a reluctant participant in the story of his own life.
What ends up being unexpectedly interesting are Hawk’s former competitors turned friends, including Stacey Peralta, Rodney Mullen, and Duane Peters. All of them, like Hawk now in their 50s, are still skating, still wearing beanies, band t-shirts and neck tattoos, and proudly talking about the good ol’ days when they spat at people and said stuff like “This is punk rock, man.” It’s a little silly, and very “oh, Dad” embarrassing, but endearing too. It’s also surprisingly poignant, particularly when they talk about how much damage what they love has done to their bodies, and how much it will continue to do until they just can’t do it anymore. But to give up is akin to acknowledging that they’re getting old, and their time is running out. Hawk doesn’t say as much, but given he’s still out there trying new moves, occasionally shouting with pain when he falls, speaks volumes.
On the downside, the limited number of female voices in Until the Wheels Fall Off, all of them either Hawk’s sisters or former or present love interests, emphasizes how very male (not to mention extremely white) the skateboarding scene was in Hawk’s heyday. This is never addressed, but on the other hand, the name of the documentary isn’t The History of Skateboarding in America. It’s Tony Hawk’s story, though it ends up being less about him, and more about Generation X’s struggle to keep the flame of youth and promise burning as time continues to slip away.
Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off is now available on HBO Max.