Sports documentaries—the interesting ones, at least—articulate the exorbitant costs (physical, monetary, interpersonal, psychic) of superhuman athletic achievement. The thrill of victory can’t exist without the agony of defeat, but, more urgently, there’s no one more insufferable than a winner who didn’t catch a number of losses along the way. At the same time, these narratives have to make the viewer accept that their subjects are lucky to have found and excel at what they love, and are not completely unwell in chasing excellence at the expense of their health and well-being. That’s a massive challenge—but much less so when you’re working with a subject as affable and self-aware as Tony Hawk.
Sam Jones’s Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off (2022) traces Hawk’s career from childhood to the present, encompassing highs such as joining the Bones Brigade, landing the 900 at the 1999 X Games, and serving as the face of a wildly successful video game franchise, and lows that span career-altering burnout, his father’s death, and his own shortcomings as a father. The film uses Hawk as a window into skateboarding as a whole, depicting the sport’s transition from insularity and obscurity to widespread popularity, with such admiration and attention to detail that I sometimes wished the film were an eight-part docuseries about the history of skateboarding instead.
But, for as much as I yearned for hours of additional footage of Rodney Mullen soothingly describing the phenomenology of skating, I can’t deny that Tony Hawk makes an ideal individual subject. Self-reflective and willing to laugh at himself—his affect during his talking heads is precisely what you’d expect from the famous race war Twitter exchange—Hawk is not just iconic but eminently watchable, endearing, and incisive in equal measure. As someone with only surface-level knowledge of skateboarding, I’d assumed he achieved that icon status by building on a solid foundation of natural talent, but Until the Wheels Fall Off works because Hawk’s career is in fact the improbable end result of being psychologically suited to both the sport’s grueling, repetitive daily grind and its transcendent heights—and not physically equipped for success in the least.
Innately hyper-competitive and scrawny as fuck, young Tony Hawk is the only evidence I’ve ever seen that implies birth order theory might be valid for people other than oldest daughters. Born in San Diego in 1968 to aging parents who had already gotten their three older children most of the way to adulthood by then, Hawk is presented in the film as a smart, slightly lonely kid who’s desperate to prove himself through athletic success in spite of a profoundly unathletic build. After a few mismatches—it turns out that hitting balls directly at your opponent’s body is frowned upon in tennis, especially when your opponent is your mother; striking out in baseball sends him spiraling into deep despondency—he finds skateboarding, which gives him a feeling of “absolute freedom.”
Initially, that sense of freedom is all he gets out of the experience. He’s not bad at skating, but his skinniness places the strength-oriented style that was in vogue at the time out of his reach. He compensates with clever workarounds and unorthodox tricks that other skaters see as cutesy at best and preposterous at worst—an especially harsh reception in a sport marked by a strong sense of camaraderie and the fundamental desire to do cool things to impress your friends. On top of that, he’s young—and, by his own admission, very annoying even if you grade on the teenage-boy curve—and has a too-involved father, Frank, who’s not so much a stage parent to Tony as a self-proclaimed guardian of the sport as a whole. In his quest to elevate skateboarding from dirtbag hobby to structured competitive activity, Frank imposes a regulatory regime—managing events with an iron fist, sticking to strict timetables, and cutting skaters off when their turns end—that raises the sport’s profile but incurs the wrath of Tony’s peers.
But Hawk matures out of his off-putting semi-only-child tendencies and learns to transcend his lack of physical aptitude through a combination of spatial awareness, intelligence, and stubbornness that leads him gradually to both acceptance and greatness. It’s not a linear journey—he struggles with burnout, balancing his work with marriage and fatherhood, and Frank’s floundering health—but Hawk’s stubbornness makes him uniquely equipped to weather it. Throughout the documentary, interviewees describe Hawk’s single-mindedness when learning new stunts: he tries as many times as it takes, accepting whatever injuries come his way; the intensity of his thinking through making tiny refinements shows on his face; and, when he finally lands what he’s been working on, he’s relieved and at peace—not excited or celebratory.
But hearing this dynamic described doesn’t do it justice, and we don’t get to see it play out for ourselves until Hawk successfully performs the 900—a full two and a half revolutions in mid-air—at the 1999 X Games. It’s a beautiful feat, one that moves me to tears every time I’ve watched it, but the 11 failed attempts leading up to it are the images that stuck with me. Hawk falls repeatedly—none of them particularly bad, but the accumulation must have been painful. And, impact injuries aside, attempting the stunt over and over again looks exhausting. With each subsequent attempt, Hawk grows more and more visibly frustrated with himself, draws himself deeper and deeper into himself—a self that is totally unwilling to accept failure and totally willing to destroy itself in the process of reaching success.
As the talking heads that follow suggest, it’s not just that Hawk has to be willing to risk bodily harm because of the very nature of his sport; it’s also that achievement at this level demands a certain degree of self-sacrifice, even if you manage to avoid physical calamity. As Rodney Mullen explains, accomplishing something you previously thought you’d never be able to do fundamentally changes you as a person. And, as Hawk’s older brother Steve notes in a collaborative exchange with Jones, who speaks from behind the camera, other dramatic personal changes precipitated the 900 in the first place: he would never have been allowed 12 attempts if Frank had still been alive and running competitions.
Of course, Hawk’s father’s support also helped his career thrive—even as his involvement reinforced the younger Hawk’s early outsider status. The film’s willingness to embrace these complexities makes for a compelling, honest revision of the I wish my deceased parent were alive to see this sports-narrative trope—there’s a case to be made that anything any of us does is both because and in spite of our parents, but it’s rare to see it stated so explicitly in a piece of sports media. The closest we get to a traditional expression of grief here is present-day Hawk saying he wished his dad could have seen skateboarding achieve mainstream popularity, and the footage that represents the elder Hawk’s passing ultimately underlines the found-family, doing-cool-shit-with-and-for-your-friends vibe of the sport: a few still images of father and son flit across the screen, leading into a clip of Frank talking to local news about how much he appreciates the camaraderie among skateboarders.
That camaraderie persists into this day. Hawk and all his peers have retired from competition, but they all still skate, practicing both separately and together—and still take on significant physical risk, even more so as their bodies age. The film begins with present-day Hawk skating on an indoor half-pipe in silence until he wipes out and screams “FUCK!” repeatedly, in a mixture of pain and frustration. It ends with similar footage, preceded by an extended group meditation on retirement and aging, including Bones Brigade founder Stacy Peralta explaining why and how these individual men all continue to skate. Though there are psychological nuances, the fundamental reason is the same: they simply can’t quit; they’re still willing to risk destroying themselves even though they’re riddled with decades of injuries and their athletic peaks have long passed. Mullen is right that transcending your previous limitations changes a person—but to keep chasing that feeling, you have to remain at your core a person who’s willing to risk it all to get there.