The Encinitas premiere of “Momentum Generation” brought surf legends like Rob Machado and Kelly Slater to the locally hallowed grounds of La Paloma Theater on Nov. 9 — both on the screen and in the flesh.
Cardiff resident Machado posed for photos during a casual red carpet and told The Coast News, “Audiences will get to see a lot more depth from our lives at that time period than they may expect. The film peels back the layers and shows the good, bad and everything in between.”
Directed by brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist and counting Robert Redford among its executive producers, “Momentum Generation” will debut on Dec. 11, exclusively on HBO.
As a documentary chronicling the experiences of surfers and a filmmaker who forever changed the face of the sport starting in the 1990s, “Momentum Generation” goes beyond cool tricks to take an unflinching look at what it took to break ground and excel.
Competition and tragedy, as it turns out, played equal parts to camaraderie and comedy in their lives.
“We were so young then — just kids — and our communication was limited,” Machado said. “You’d call home once a week. So this crew was your family.”
Machado was referring to the teenage days he spent with Slater, Taylor Knox, Kalani Robb, Ross Williams, Shane Dorian and others who all crashed at Benji Weatherley’s mom’s house on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Film footage shows the wild teens sleeping on any floor space they can find, jumping on a trampoline and constantly teasing each other.
The young guys, who would go on to become formidable professional surfers, gathered at the North Shore to test their surfing chops at Pipeline. There they could get barreled by huge waves or find themselves hurtling into the reef just below, emerging bloodied and gasping for air.
Many of the film’s subjects came from dysfunctional homes characterized by alcohol abuse and neglect, and surfing provided an outlet to channel those frustrations and thrive despite them. The ragtag teens became a powerful brotherhood who vaulted each other to surfing prowess.
Standing by the La Paloma marquee, Knox, whose professional surfing career extended beyond two decades, said that pro surfing has become increasingly “sport-ish,” citing the greater presence of coaching as an example. “I’d say it’s more refined now. Pro surfing was more raw when we were doing it.”
There in the ’90s to capture their raw, wave-riding glory was filmmaker Taylor Steele, who grew up in North San Diego County. Steele — shown in the documentary at one point as a young guy living out of a van on the North Shore — redefined surf films with a fast-paced, punk-rock infused, MTV-style approach. Prior to that time, Steele said, “Surf films were beautifully shot and slower.”
Although Steele appears to have come full circle in his own work, returning to rich cinematography that celebrates gorgeous landscapes, in those days he was an industry disrupter. His films not only cast surfing as an adrenaline-fueled action sport, but they also launched bands like Pennywise and Blink-182 from obscurity into the limelight.
But a time came, as shown in “Momentum Generation,” when the bonds of friendship strained under the demands of competition and money. Managers began to insist on compensation in order for their surfers to be shown in Steele’s films, which brought about the end of those early collaborations.
Slater — who has 11 world titles and still surfs on the Championship Tour — went into a full-bore competitive mode that jeopardized his relationships. A controversial moment between Slater and Machado with a world championship on the line makes the audience question whether it is witnessing brotherhood or betrayal.
Then there’s the tragic death by drowning of the crew’s dear friend and fellow surfer Todd Chesser, which sent Weatherley toward depression and drugs and deepened rifts in the group, who all struggled to come to terms with the loss in their own ways.
Robb said before the screening, “People think of us and assume it was all glamorous and we were so lucky, but the film shows the other side, where things were not all easy all the time.”
The group had a way of bringing each other back from the brink, however. Slater, for example, after realizing his win-above-all-else attitude had decimated his friendships, helped Weatherley get healthy again. Steele used his filmmaking to help Machado out of a funk, which set Machado on the path to becoming a famous and highly paid free surfer.
Ultimately, the film leaves you with the impression that money, fame and confidence can come and go like the tides, but the best of friendships last forever.
The Momentum guys, smiling in front of La Paloma and continuing to razz each other on stage after the screening, clearly still enjoy and are supported by the bonds they forged decades ago.