The day surfing lost one of its most beloved rabble-rousers was the day it rediscovered its soul.
That’s one of the many takeaways from “Momentum Generation,” a beautifully melancholy documentary that is, at its core, about surfers, but speaks every bit as fluently about friendship, loyalty and the price people are willing — or not willing — to pay to be the best at what they do.
This is not simply a movie for surfing fans, the likes of which populated the fringe, action-sports landscape in the 1990s and helped make most of the real-life protagonists in this 2018 film (fairly) rich and (largely) famous.
Using decades-old footage from surfing filmmaker Taylor Steele’s voluminous archives, directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (The Two Escobars, Favela Rising) take viewers on a ride through the waves that starts on the North Shore of Oahu, where a teenage group of preternaturally talented surfers, some of them from broken homes, gather and begin bonding.
They are not-so-gently schooled by the rabble-rouser, Todd Chesser. Chesser is a daredevil, an older-brother figure who throws these boys in with the sharks, while keeping a sharp pin prick at the ready to slap down anyone who shows even the faintest sign of thinking he’s bigger than the game.
Chesser’s ethos helps transform the boys into men and, somehow, they manage to stay friends while also becoming fierce competitors, ganging up to knock Australia’s pro-surfing dynasty off its pedestal.
All is well for the young Americans until 1995. The best in the sport is Kelly Slater. His nearest rival is also his best friend, Rob Machado, who, decades later, spent nearly six years collaborating with his manager and others to get this movie made.
As their dream season pushes forward, the relati6onship between Slater and Machado grows tense. The crescendo comes during a season-ending contest at which Machado and Slater are going mano a mano in a heat that will decide who wins the season-long world championship. Toward the end of the riveting back-and-forth duel, Machado rolls out early from a wave and gives Slater, who is waiting there, a possibly ill-timed high-five that seems to indicate all is forgiven, no matter who wins.
That high-five changed a lot. The movie goes into detail about the whats and whys, but suffice it to say that nearly a quarter-century after the event, the debate over what really happened lingers.
“In my recollection, the heat had already been dictated, and basically, that was irrelevant,” Machado said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. “It didn’t really matter.”
Maybe not that day.
But Slater won. In the aftermath, he went on to become the most successful pro surfer in history, while Machado’s competitive career was never the same.
Neither, however, emerged unscathed by Chesser’s death less than 15 months later; he was killed while surfing a wild wave on Oahu’s Outside Alligators.
The tragedy forces everyone in this testosterone-charged world to reckon with his demons: abusive and absent parents; drug and alcohol addiction; fraying friendships; the fallout from years of hyper-competitiveness, the residue of which can’t forever be tamped down with a friendly postgame beer.
“Who won?” Taylor Knox says in the movie, possibly realizing how late he was in solving the ultimate question that stares down pro surfers. “To me, it’s the one having the most fun.”
That’s not an uncommon refrain in the action-sports world.
Though never mentioned in the movie, the specter of the Olympics looms throughout. It’s impossible to watch without acknowledging surfing’s upcoming Olympic debut — set for next summer in Japan — along with the baggage that mainstream acceptance brings with it. Slater, still fit at age 47 and not officially retired, could very well represent America on the waves in Tokyo.
Surfers’ action-sports cousins, the snowboarders, still grapple with riding for money and medals, and with being co-opted into a bloated Olympic domain that even the most mercenary in the sport will concede does not mesh with their values.
As “Momentum Generation” details, surfers are a few decades ahead in the life cycle of this conundrum. They were riding for cash and prizes before the snowboard was invented. An icon’s untimely death threw a tear-stained blanket over it for many of them, and the subsequent success Machado and many others have enjoyed has come on the “lifestyle” side of the sport.
Both the Olympics, to say nothing of the memories sparked from the movie, have dragged surfers back to the question of how much competition is healthy, and how mainstream they want to become.
If it were up to Chesser — alive, looming and bristly as ever on the screen — this would not be up for debate.
“He would definitely not be watching the Olympics. He would be laughing at it,” Machado said. “Probably just going, ‘Well, whatever. I’m gonna go surf.'”