‘Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton’ is the latest documentary from Oscar-nominated director Rory Kennedy, and a change of pace from her previous social issue documentaries like ‘Last Days in Vietnam’, ‘Shouting Fire’ and the Emmy-winning ‘Ghosts of Abu Ghraib’.
In the early 1990s, Hamilton - along with a small group of friends collectively dubbed the “Strapped Crew” because their feet were strapped to their boards - pushed the boundaries of surfing at Jaws surf break off the north central coast of Maui. Hamilton and two of his close friends, big wave riders Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox, started using inflatable boats to tow one another into waves which were too big to catch under paddle power alone (chronicled in Stacy Peralta and Sam George’s documentary film, ‘Riding Giants’, which also featured Hamilton in a wider look at surf culture, its history and its surrounding mythology). The technique would later be modified to use personal water craft and become a popular innovation.
Tow-in surfing, as it became known, pushed the confinements and possibilities of big wave surfing to a new level. Although met with mixed reactions from the surfing community, some of whom felt that it was cheating and polluting, Hamilton explained that tow-in surfing was the only way to catch the monstrous-sized waves. Using tow-in surfing methods, Hamilton learned how to survive these huge waves and carve arcs across walls of water.
Despite never competing professionally, Laird Hamilton has been compared to athletes like Wayne Gretzky and Tiger Woods in regards to his impact on his sport. Immune to panic (“he has a fear deficit,” says Buzzy Kerbox), Hamilton is also, says surfing legend Gerry Lopez, “a naturally gifted surfer,” blessed with balance and a sensitivity to what the ocean might be doing next.
Mixing archival and new footage with interviews with Hamilton, multiple friends (and sometimes ex-friends), surf journalists, his step-father Bill Hamilton and wife Gabrielle Reece, ‘Take Every Wave’ flashes back from a present where Hamilton is nervously listening to radio reports about a historic sea swell.
Starting chronologically, the film shows us a rebellious Hamilton growing up on Pūpūkea beach on Hawaii’s Oahu North Shore, where he was raised by his single mother and showed a natural affinity for the water. We see his brief modelling career, his role as the bad guy in the cheesy surf flick ‘North Shore’, his relentless innovations in both windsurfing and surfing. The insights from his friends, pro surfers, surf magazine editors and wife Reece help us understand Hamilton's drive and stature, but it mostly comes across as brand promotion.
Written by Mark Bailey and Jack Youngelson, and edited by Azin Samari, the narrative jumps between Southern California and Hawaii, with detours to Bermuda, Tahiti and briefly to Europe for one particularly amusing daredevil adventure. It's framed against the aforementioned recent winter surf season on Hamilton's childhood home of Kauai Island, where El Niño storm systems are expected to pump the largest swells ever recorded there. Hamilton confesses he's been waiting his whole life to ride waves this size.
He has also experimented with the foilboard, an innovative surfboard which incorporates hydrofoil technology, allowing a higher degree of precision, less drag and more effectiveness of aerial techniques within the water. Prepare to see a lot of Hamilton discussing, shaping, measuring, caressing and gazing at his foilboard.
Despite being remarkably candid about all his activities - including the hard feelings some of his actions produced in his close friends and the nature of and strains on his marriage to Reece - ‘Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton’ makes you ponder the depth of the details it obviously skims over. At times, it seems that this film project was conceived to preserve Hamilton’s legacy while he's still active, which is why it keeps the focus on his surfing. His first marriage to a woman he only refers to as “some Brazilian bodyboarder” (Maria Souza, the first woman to compete in tow-in surfing and the mother of his first child, Izabella) barely rates a mention and the extent of his business empire, multimedia celebrity profile (Hamilton appeared as Kevin Costner's stunt double during the 1995 filming of ‘Waterworld’), and other factors (Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox lost their friendship over a property disagreement) are just glancingly noted.
We see Hamilton and other board riders etching lines in glassy monoliths before the avalanche crashes down, doing airborne loops over rolling waves, or crouching like skateboarders as they zoom through foaming tunnels of water.
However, the film does touch on the way the increased spotlight on Hamilton excluded his surfing brotherhood, which led to his Strapped production company being dismantled and the abrupt end of important friendships. “Big dogs eat first,” he says earlier in the film, admitting he was obnoxious about grabbing any wave he wanted rather than observing his place in the queue. To some extent that attitude is echoed in his unapologetic justification for the Strapped break-up.
Fortunately, the footage featured in ‘Take Every Wave’ is extraordinary. Shot by Alice Gu and Don King, the documentary makers had access to Hamilton's personal visual archive, and the resulting imagery of him on the water - including his celebrated August 2000 ride at Teahupo'o, a particularly hazardous shallow water reef break southeast of the Pacific Island of Tahiti (considered “the most intense wave ever surfed”) - is astonishing.
Throughout the documentary, we see Hamilton and other board riders etching lines in glassy monoliths before the avalanche crashes down, doing airborne loops over rolling waves, or crouching like skateboarders as they zoom through foaming tunnels of water. Watching this elegant surf ballet on a big screen is euphoric, often combining awe with white-knuckle terror. But there are images of mellow tranquility, too, such as hypnotic shots of Hamilton, back muscles flexing, swimming like a porpoise beneath the surface of the ocean.
The energy of the film is further galvanised by Nathan Larson's music and a diverse mix tape of rock tracks by artists from the Ventures and Jack Nitzsche to the Pixies, ending with Jack Nitzsche's early-'60s tune, 'The Lonely Surfer'.
‘Take Every Wave’ (named after Hamilton's philosophy of never passing up a chance) proves itself as an effective companion piece to ‘Riding Giants’. The film's final scene has Hamilton on his foilboard, riding one of those El Niño waves that seems to last for days, with little apparent effort. This slick portrait won’t provide many surprises for surfing fans that have followed the subject’s high-profile career and it never probes too deeply, but this film should fascinate others for whom he’s a less familiar personality. At the very least, the footage of Hamilton’s wave riding is often-astounding and awe-inspiring, whether you’ve seen its like before or not.