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“It Takes More Than Just Joy”: ‘Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off’ Captures the Gravity of Chasing Air

Sam Jones’s HBO Max documentary on the skating legend centers on what it looks like to be a pioneer in a progressive endeavor—and how it feels when the glory of weightlessness gives way to the dread of the void

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Recently, the action sports icon Tony Hawk accomplished an important physical feat. “Just before I got on this interview with you,” he says over Zoom in late March, sitting in front of a decorative wall of skateboards, “I put my socks on, while I’m sitting here, by myself.” He looks slightly spent by the effort, and also relieved. He sounds proud. “I couldn’t do that a week ago,” he explains. On March 7, during a routine (for him) Monday skateboarding session, the 53-year-old Hawk landed weirdly on a ramp and broke his femur, the human body’s strongest bone, an incident that would have sucked regardless but was made even worse by the fact that he was days aways from leaving for the SXSW conference to promote a new HBO documentary about his life and times called Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off. Now, his wheels kinda had.

“I got a text that said, ‘Hey, I broke my femur,’” says the film’s director, Sam Jones, over Zoom. “‘And please don’t tell anyone yet.’” Hawk kept texting: updates about his surgery, his doctor, his hospital bed; requests not to say anything to HBO right away; promises that he’d still be making it to Austin, Texas, for the film festival. “I’m going to get a clearance from a doctor to fly,” Hawk told Jones, who was skeptical: A couple of years back, another skateboarder friend of theirs, Steve Caballero, had suffered a similar injury and was extremely in-the-hospital-and-out-of-commission for a solid week. Still, somehow, Hawk and his newly installed nuts and bolts made it work. “We were just shocked that he came,” Jones says. “He willed himself to get on a plane and come to our film festival and, like, pull himself into the car.”

In Austin, Hawk’s very appearance made for a vivid coda to the two-hour documentary. Throughout Until the Wheels Fall Off, and especially in the last half hour or so, Hawk’s various mentors and pals and rivals and peers marvel and worry about the toll that his continued pursuit of his chosen craft—one that has made him a park rat, an innovator, an X Games O.G., a video game magnate, and a global household name—takes on his lanky body. “I’ve been there before,” skateboarder Sean Mortimer says in Until the Wheels Fall Off, fretting about his former roommate Hawk’s famous fixation on doing things faster-higher-gnarlier and into oblivion, “when he only stopped cause he broke a rib.”

Two weeks after his surgery, Hawk returned to the ramp where he was injured and, as if to sage away the unchill vibes of the place, got back on his skateboard and rode away from the spot where he fell as his wife, Catherine, stood nearby holding his crutch. A few days later, at the Oscars, Hawk, surfer Kelly Slater, and snowboarder Shaun White appeared onstage to celebrate the links between James Bond movies and action sports. Highlights of Hawk’s night included meeting Bill Murray, who was a vocal fan of Catherine’s Gucci dress, and having the honor of explaining one of the internet’s finest memes to Wesley Snipes.

But as usual, Hawk also used the evening as an excuse to test a new personal limit. He walked the red carpet with a cane adorned with a small metal avian skull, an homage to his skateboard company Birdhouse, but when it was time to present, he left it backstage, achieving a little goal he’d set for himself in his recovery. “I had been preparing for that night,” he says. Watching Until the Wheels Fall Off, which arrived on HBO Max on Tuesday, it’s easy to imagine what that preparation looked like: stubborn, relentless, and laser-focused, insistent on trying again and again until reaching a goal or breaking a bone, a ratio that these days just ain’t what it used to be.

When viewers first meet Hawk in Until the Wheels Fall Off, he is in an indoor training facility, eating shit again and again and again and again. He still has an intact femur, but he’s a man in middle age climbing a ladder over and over so he can try (and fail) to land his famed 900, sometimes gracefully, and always painfully. Hawk was the very first person to hit a 900, at the X Games in 1999, and is also the oldest to have managed the trick, successfully rotating his then-48-year-old frame two and a half times in a video he shared in 2016.

Told with an appreciative apprehension reminiscent of other extreme-athlete documentaries like 2010’s The Birth of Big Air and 2013’s McConkey, Jones’s Until the Wheels Fall Off is about what it looks like to be a pioneer in a progressive endeavor, and about how it feels when the glory of weightlessness gives way to the dread of the void. “You make it up all the way to the top of the mountain,” one of Hawk’s longtime peers and one of the film’s many interviewees, the Nietzsche-paraphrasing skater Rodney Mullen, reflects in the film, “and there’s nothing left but to get hit by lightning.” Jones’s movie traces the relentlessness of Hawk’s climb, the loneliness at the summit, and the way life looks from the other side of the hill.

The film introduces viewers to Hawk’s family: Greatest Generation–age parents who had him in their 40s and referred to him as “our little surprise”; a trio of way-older siblings who had friendly relationships with their kid brother but also mostly remember him with assessments like, “Tony was a bit of a dick when he was little. Stubborn as fuck.” (Hawk agrees!) Viewers also meet many of the people who will become part of Hawk’s skateboarding family, like god-uncle figure Stacy Peralta and fellow members of his “Bones Brigade” skating consortium. We see a tiny, outrageously gangly young Hawk drowning in knee pads in the early ’80s, with barely enough momentum to get him up the side of a skate park wall, and years later we see Hawk, still a string bean but now with a bit more snap to him, doing things at competitions that no one had quite seen before.

We are reminded that, for a time, the poor kid’s success was received by spectators with toxic skepticism. (“It’s like, flippy-doo-dah-day bullshit,” Hawk rival Duane Peters says in the film of Hawk’s style. “Like, go play with your sister’s baton, bro.”) It didn’t help Hawk’s popularity that his old Navy-guy father, Frank, created the fledgling National Skateboarding Association in an effort to legitimatize his son’s interest—an act of love that also made said son seem deeply uncool. Still, by the time Hawk attempted the 900 at the X Games in 1999 he had become the most widely known face of the sport. (His smash hit video game, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, was released later that summer.)

But as Until the Wheels Fall Off makes clear, that face wasn’t always a satisfied one. Perhaps the most lasting image from those 1999 X Games, a crash-tastic spectacle that is replayed at length in the new doc, isn’t when Hawk finally hits the 900. It’s the way his eyes go pitch black and his nostrils flare in every direction all the times—all the 10 times!—he doesn’t. “It’s more interesting watching him learn and fail,” muses Mullen in Until the Wheels Fall Off, “than watching him land tricks.”

Jones, a 55-year-old photographer, music video director, filmmaker, and former SoCal skateboarder himself, sought to portray Hawk as a legendary talent, but also as an aberration. “I wanted people to understand that it takes more than just joy,” Jones says. “You also have to have this drive, and it has to almost obsess you, consume you. He’s obsessed with skateboarding, and it would be a disservice to who he really is not to show that he came out of the womb that way.”

As a youth, Jones sometimes crossed paths with Hawk at skate parks, and he always felt a kinship with the shrimpy lad: “I was a scrawny, skinny kid that was years from development when other kids were hitting puberty and all that,” Jones says. Through skateboarding, he found not only a social life, but also, unexpectedly, a career: his buddy Neil Blender, a skateboarder who is interviewed in the film, helped teach him “rudimentary elements of photography,” Jones says, “because he would want me to get a picture of him skating and he’d be like, all right, stand here, do this.”

If skateboarding is a sport defined by progression, of ratcheting up one new trick after the next toward infinity, so, too, is its capture and distribution. As Until the Wheels Fall Off shows, much of Hawk’s skateboarding career coincided with pivotal new advances in the realm of skateboarding coverage. In 1984 it was Peralta, the head of the Bones Brigade, who oversaw The Bones Brigade Video Show, a production that was the first straight-to-video action sports movie and that, to modern eyes, feels like a cross between Wayne’s World and TikTok. “He showed us all that there was this restless mind at work, trying to figure out new ways to show skating,” Jones says of Peralta.

Hawk had a restless mind, too, and a willing body to go along with it; when it came to promoting skateboarding he was learning to master both the message and the medium. During a trip to Japan in the ’80s, he bought a high-end camcorder that wasn’t available in the U.S. “All the instructions were in Japanese,” he says. “I had my friend there translate each button and I wrote it in paint marker in English.” In the early ’90s, his mind was blown when he got introduced to non-linear video editing. “I couldn’t afford a Video Toaster system,” he says of the tech at the time, “but they asked me to do a promotional video for them and they offered me a Video Toaster in return. And I was all in. That was, like, a huge turning point.” For the Pro Skater video game, he donned a motion capture suit and gave constant advice about how to tweak the game’s realism.

Hawk and Peralta constantly tried new angles and schemes over the years, though it didn’t always work. “There’s some [old] footage,” says Jones, “that we didn’t end up using in the film, but at one point Stacy put a camera on a cable and tried to shoot overhead, and Tony comes up at one point and hits the camera.” Watching some of the other old camera work, like some super slo-mo shots of Hawk, inspired Jones to try something newfangled of his own in Until the Wheels Fall Off: drone shots. He hired a drone racer to navigate the device, via a VR controller, above and beneath and around Hawk as he skated one day—“we all had to hide,” Jones said, “because the drone saw everything”—a gambit that drew blood only once, when signals got crossed and the drone crashed into Hawk.

“Tony’s hand looked like it needed stitches,” says Jones. “He was like, ‘Let’s just tape it up and keep going.’” The resulting footage was worth it: “I feel like we achieved, at the end of this film, the feeling of the viewer flying with Tony while he skates,” Jones says. “I wanted the viewers to feel what it feels like. Because if you could really fly, like Tony could do, you could understand why he never quit, or why he still risks his life.”

That may be true. But one of the most interesting aspects of Until the Wheels Fall Off is the way it demonstrates how many of Hawk’s contemporaries on the skateboarding scene—some of the very few people in the world who do, in fact, know what it feels like to really fly—are as awed and baffled and quietly frightened by his exploits as any earthbound civilian might be. Early on in the movie, Blender talks about how he reached his personal ceiling long ago when he bailed on trying to ever land a 540, a decision that wouldn’t compute if you were to suggest it to Hawk, who estimates that he’s done a solid 10,000 of them. Later, another interviewee winces at the very idea of a 900. “That really trashes your body super quick,” he says, before the film transitions to Hawk trashing his body in pursuit of the dream.

And late in the film, when a group of aging Bones Brigaders reunite to shoot some cool video for old times’ sake, everything is going well until Hawk takes things too hard and too far and too big. Even in the presence of certified daredevils, he’s the only one struggling with keeping things even medium-key. He winds up injured, with his friends and wife gathered over and around him, and several of them give subsequent documentary interviews about whether someone ought to tell Hawk that he should take things down a notch. “You can’t put yourself in that kind of danger at this age,” Peralta says urgently. “There’s gotta be an intervention here. I mean, come on: That’s not a bad concussion. That’s a disaster.”

According to Hawk, Peralta “did first call my wife,” with his concerns, which Hawk says was a smart move: “The sort of hierarchy of who I’m going to take advice from,” he says, “starts with her.” Peralta also called Hawk’s brother, and Mortimer, and then Hawk directly. “I had to sort of talk him off the ledge about my motivations and what I try to accomplish,” Hawk says. “So I was no stranger to Stacy trying to guide me in that way.” Still, watching Until the Wheels Fall Off was a wake-up call in certain ways. “I guess I just didn’t see how much it weighed on [Peralta] until I saw the doc,” Hawk says, “and saw how truly troubled he was. And so, yeah, that was before I got hurt.

When Hawk got hurt, the problem wasn’t that he was aiming too big, or going too fast. It was the opposite: “I did it on a trick that I take for granted for the most part,” he says. “I didn’t have the usual amount of speed that I typically like having when I do it. But when I was younger, that was never a problem.”

Slow can be stressful. Sometimes, Hawk says, when he has dreams about skateboarding, “it’s like, there is carpet on the ramp,” he says. “It’s always something ridiculous like that—or the whole thing is Jell-O.” It’s easy to look at someone like Hawk and see recklessness and a complete disregard for risk, but that isn’t the case. He knows better than anyone the importance of getting every last detail just so to ensure a successful operation, having spent the better part of a lifetime making calculations large and small: ideal launch angles, where to best hammer a nail on a homemade backyard ramp, how much to shift his weight or tuck his head.

But even the finest quantitative models are only as good as the robustness of their inputs, and Hawk now finds himself having to recalibrate many of his old baseline assumptions. On the day he got hurt, Hawk had taken note of his speed, but “I just sort of went into that mode of ‘Oh, I can do it, I can snap it fast, it’s OK,’” he says. “And before I knew it, I was on the wall sooner than I imagined. All tangled up. And then my leg just snapped. I mean, it was a fluke. It was totally unexpected.” As Until the Wheels Fall Off makes clear, though, it was more like an inevitability.

In the documentary, Hawk remembers one of the low moments in his career, when he crashed while first striving for the 900 and broke a rib. This was before the video game, and “I wasn’t making a good living skating,” Hawk says in the documentary. The injury made him late to pick up his oldest son, Riley, from kindergarten. (Riley is now 29 and a pro skateboarder in his own right; his latest video is titled “Nepotism.”) “It was this moment in life,” Hawk says in the film, “where I was like, ‘What am I doing?!’” The gap between the quotidian responsibilities of fatherhood—Hawk is now a father of four—and the untethered abandon of Hawk’s vocation feels as enormous as one of his vertical ramps.

And yet it represents only the second-broadest gulf between father and child as shown in Until the Wheels Fall Off. In making the film, Jones pored over decades of footage—grainy old skateboarding competitions, local news dispatches, etc.—and watched and recorded hours of radical athletic achievements. But of everything he viewed, what most resonated with Jones wasn’t the skating or the crashing or the clips of a tween Hawk pushing the envelope. To his surprise, it was an old TV news interview with Hawk’s late father, whom Tony had finally asked to take a step back from working at competitions that he was involved with.

“When we’re at work, we’re strangers to each other,” Frank remarks in the clip. As a young skater, Jones remembered perceiving Frank Hawk as “the man,” in the bogus authority figure, not the cool dude, sense of the phrase, and had he seen that interview as a kid, he says now, “I would go, yes, Dad, get out of his face.” But viewed all these years later, “I see it and I cry,” says Jones, who is now himself the father of teenagers. “That was a real cathartic thing, because it proves that we’re ships that pass in the night with our kids,” Jones says. “We’re never in the same place with them.” To Jones, the constraints and contradictions of parenthood and legacies are key to the film. “The idea of ‘How long can we do this for?’ and ‘How does it shape our identity?’—those are two big themes,” Jones says, referring to skateboarding. “But the fatherhood element of it is huge for me.”

It is huge for Hawk, too, especially as his own children branch off to new places where he is the fish out of water. When I ask what kinds of things have replaced the satisfaction of skateboarding in his life while he’s sidelined with his injury, he mentions his youngest daughter. “What gets me excited is, like, my daughter loves theater,” he says. “Seeing her thrive in theater, and seeing her make her way and find new friends and stuff—like, she’s going to go to a theater camp this summer, which is a huge thing for her. And so that’s exciting to me, to see her finding her calling and thriving in it.”

In terms of his own personal milestones, Hawk continues, “Today, I was able to put both my pant legs on without having to drag them across the floor.” There was also the success with the socks. And looking ahead, Hawk has his eye on May 12, when he is hosting a Las Vegas multi-day music festival called Tony Hawk’s Weekend Jam, an event at which he has pledged to “skate during our legends jam.” Even if he doesn’t have his usual repertoire, he wrote on Instagram, “I have a lot of grit … and many 80’s tricks as backup.”

Between then and now lies a whole lot of work and a whole lot of pain. After his surgery, Hawk was assigned a physical therapist by the hospital, and considers himself to be an exemplary patient: “I’m very cooperative,” he says. “I value what they say and what they’re doing.” Then he keeps talking. “I think what happens,” he says, “is I’m so hyper-focused on my recovery, that I end up doubling up the exercises. So for instance, my PT came today, did my exercises, and the whole time I’m mentally trying to remember each one so that I can end up doing it another once or twice today.”

Hearing himself say all this, Hawk starts grinning. “Sometimes that doesn’t benefit me, because it makes my leg really tired,” he admits, though he doesn’t sound particularly sheepish. “But that’s the way I’m trying to expedite my recovery.” Moving forward is all about making adjustments, and there will always be new blind landings to stick.

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