Surfing has long been a pastime and part of the culture in beach communities, particularly in Australia. Via films and documentaries, surfing has been brought to even the most landlocked audiences. From the late 1950s through to today, surf films remain popular, covering both the sport itself and the subculture surrounding it. The genre uses a mix of captivating (and often cutting-edge) visuals, music and loose narrative, for an awe-inspiring and often trippy experience.
The surfing documentary was pioneered by Bud “Barracuda” Browne (‘Hawaiian Surfing Movie’) in the 1940s and early 1950s, and later popularised by Bruce Brown (‘The Endless Summer’, ‘The Endless Summer II’) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, then later perfected by Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman (‘Five Summer Stories’) in the 1970s. The genre in itself has been defined by surfers, travelling with their friends and documenting the experience on film, some creating portraits of catch-the-ultimate-wave obsessiveness, but most emphasising the good times - sun, sand, bronzed dudes, pretty girls, beer, bonfires, doobies.
In the heyday of Bruce Brown, Greg Noll, Bud Browne and John Severson, viewings of surfing docos were a communal experience, with films projected for fans in music halls, civic centres and high school auditoriums. During the 1980s, the market for surf films surged with the release of more affordable handheld video cameras. By the 1990s, the surfing market became saturated with low- and medium-budget surf films, many with soundtracks that reflected the mass media-driven music culture. VHS and DVDs made the genre more of a home viewing affair. Furthermore, large surf brands began making surf films under their marketing budgets to promote clothing and product sales. Titles like Sonny Miller's ‘The Search’ for Rip Curl redefined the genre with exotic locales, big budgets and name surfers, such as Tom Curren.
In the late 1990s to the present, there has been a revival of the “indie surf film”, with the likes of The Malloys and Jack Johnson (‘Thicker than Water’, ‘A Brokedown Melody’) and Jason Baffa (‘Single Fin Yellow’) shooting self-financed 16mm motion picture film, utilising independent musical acts, and backing the release of the films with grass roots screening tours.
The latest high-profile surfing documentary is ‘Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton’ from Oscar-nominated director Rory Kennedy (‘Ghost of Abu Ghraib’, ‘Last Days In Vietnam’), charting the life of the American big wave surfer who was a primary influence behind many surfing innovations, including tow-in surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, and hydrofoil boarding.
If you want to get up to speed with surfing before watching ‘Take Every Wave’, you should check out the following five documentaries...
Inspired by the spirit of 1960s surfing, California-based shaper Tyler Hatzikian builds a surfboard (a yellow vintage noserider), surfs it, and passes it on to a friend, who then repeats the process. As the board travels to well-known surf breaks in California, Australia, Japan, Hawaii and Mexico, Baffa explores some of the history and culture of surfing. Along the journey, each talented surfer (like Beau Young, Daize Shayne and David Kineshita) describes their experience surfing “Yellow” and shares their philosophies on surfing and life. Beautifully shot on 16mm, the film also features a carefully selected, mood-enhancing collection of offbeat folk, rock, jazz, and electronica tunes by relatively unknown U.S. West Coast artists like The White Buffalo.
Following in the footsteps of his filmmaker father, Dana Brown created an iconic surf documentary of his own. For ‘Step Into Liquid’, Brown gathered some of the world’s most iconic surfers, such as Laird Hamilton, Rob Machado, Kelly Slater, Gerry Lopez and Taj Burrow, and captured them putting their lives on the line for the world’s biggest waves. From Pipeline, the beaches of Vietnam and Cortes Bank to Wisconsin, Rapa Nui, and Ireland, these famed and unusual surf spots provide a breathtaking visual feast, as well as built-in cinematic tension. Dana Brown and others make an excellent effort in trying to reveal through words and visuals why this sport is indeed “their way of life”.
The genre in itself has been defined by surfers, traveling with their friends and documenting the experience on film, some creating portraits of catch-the-ultimate-wave obsessiveness, but most emphasising the good times—sun, sand, bronzed dudes, pretty girls, beer, bonfires, doobies.
Three years after ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’, Stacy Peralta came back with another spectacular doco on the history of big wave surfing. The title ‘Riding Giants’ has a two-pronged meaning, referring to both the act of harnessing huge waves, and the larger-than-life people who are obsessed with doing just that. Beginning with surfing pioneer Greg Noll, Peralta digs deep into the history of Hawaii’s Waimea Bay, chronicles Jeff Clark’s discovery of Northern California’s Mavericks, and delves into tow-in surfing with Laird Hamilton. The first documentary to ever open the Sundance Film Festival, ‘Riding Giants’ features plenty of exhilarating tube and wipe-out footage to illustrate the appeal of riding such massive waves - short of dropping them into one, Peralta brings viewers as close as most of them will ever get.
Upon its release, ‘Morning of the Earth’ introduced a new surf aesthetic with hippy vibes and classic music (the soundtrack became the first Australian Gold soundtrack album). The film portrays surfers living in spiritual harmony with nature, making their own boards (and Ewok-style homes) as they travelled in search of the perfect wave across Australia’s north-east coast, Bali and Hawaii. The movie is regarded as one of the finest of its genre and noted as recording the first surfers to ride the waves at Uluwatu on the very southern tip of Bali, bringing the country to the attention of surfers around the world and leading to it becoming a major tourist destination. With no spoken narration to cloud the visual impact of surfing from Terry Fitzgerald and Nat Young (among others), ‘Morning of the Earth’ documented a counterculture at full strength, years before it became an industry obsessed with sponsorships, competitions and tricks.
‘The Endless Summer’ comes from the idea - expressed at both the beginning and end of the film - that if one had enough time and money it would be possible to follow the summer up and down the world (northern to southern hemisphere and back). In this seminal surfing film, filmmaker/narrator Bruce Brown follows Mike Hynson and Robert August as they catch waves along the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa in a quest for new surf spots and to introduce locals to the sport. Other important surfers of the time, such as Miki Dora, Phil Edwards and Butch Van Artsdalen also appear. Featuring stunning cinematography, a laid-back soundtrack by The Sandals, and a relaxed narrative style, the film transformed Cape Town, South Africa, into one of the world’s most famous surf destinations. In 2002, ‘The Endless Summer’ was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
‘Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton’ screens exclusively in Australia at the Moonlight Cinema on the 6th January 2018 via Madman Films.