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I've never touched a surfboard in my life. But I did grow up swimming
competitively and am a certified scuba diver, so I have a understanding
of and respect for the ocean's power and allure. That's how a Kansas
guy ended up seeing the surfing documentary "Riding Giants" in the
middle of November. (Why exactly a Kansas theater was one of the five
screens it was on this week is an entirely different question that I
The title "Riding Giants" has a two-pronged meaning, referring to both the act of harnessing huge waves and the larger than life people who are obsessed with doing just that. Featuring mood-setting music ranging from ukuleles to modern California rock, this 105-minute documentary serves as a history of the sport, shaming tripe like "Gidget" and even making "Endless Summer" look like something straight out of the kiddie pool.
"Riding Giants" opens with a brief, animated, two-minute look at the first 1000 years of surfing, which ends about 1950, when the first big-name surfers began to work their magic. Using remarkable half-century old footage, the doc then follows their path to Hawaii, where surfing became not just a hobby, but a culture that was far more than the onslaught of bad surfing movies in the '50s and '60s led many to believe. The big wave surfers gradually progressed to bigger and better waves around the Hawaiian coast, where most of the surfing community was concentrated until the discovery of The Mavericks, a dangerous but glorious surfing mecca in Northern California. Eventually that locale triggered surfing's stateside explosion in popularity. But one man from Hawaii, Laird Hamilton, has sent the sport as mainstream as possible in recent years. Using teams and jet skis, Hamilton's vision and drive radically changed the mindset of what was possible as surfing entered the 21st century.
That is the documentary in a nutshell, and although it may not seem all that interesting, the suitable laid-back intensity of "Riding Giants" will engross anyone who has much interest in any aspect of surfing, whether it be the water, the culture, or the sport. Writer/director/narrator Stacey Peralta ("Dogtown and Z-Boys") knows something about counterculture himself, having been among the first professional skateboarders, so he does not tell the story in the condescending tones sometimes used in describing surfing. He instead treats his subjects much like NFL Films treats the National Football League. The athlete are borderline deities, and the tone is frequently reverential. He is aided in this tone by the interviewees, who run the gamut of surfing history from the original Hawaiian crew to the Northern California ground breakers to the current crop of competitive surfers. Virtually every relevant person mentioned is interviewed, which lends credence, particularly since many viewers will have little idea who most of the people are beforehand.
Set up like a traditional documentary, Peralta's film lets the surfers themselves tell most of the stories, and he narrates when necessary to provide pertinent details. But the personalities and passion of the interviewees are what drive the picture. These guys are wired differently than most of us; there's no question about that. Their slightly irreverent but still respectful tone lets them get away with comparing the discovery of Hawaii's North Shore to Columbus stumbling upon America. An exaggeration? Of course, but the genuine emotion in their voices and faces make the words fully believable, much like a football player comparing his sport to a war.
Perfectly complementing the almost mythic personalities are the ridiculously massive and powerful waves themselves. From the surprisingly good old-school 8mm footage shot from the shore to the digital in-your-face shots from a jet ski, the photography in Riding Giants is nothing short of stunning. The waves are simply huge, and even though you may have seen quality shots in "Blue Crush", you haven't seen them on this grand and wild a scale. I guarantee your jaw will drop multiple times.
The fact that the history of the sport can be encapsulated in less than two hours gives the film a complete and satisfying feel, as opposed to something like Baseball, for which even ten hours was not enough. Those who don't have an interest in any aspect of surfing won't care for it, but even if you can't relate to the surfing directly, you will walk out of "Riding Giants" with a greater appreciation for the sport and a better understanding of what drives those who do it.
Bottom Line: "Riding Giants" effectively and absorbingly encapsulates surfing culture and history. 8 of 10.
Riding Giants is a brilliant documentary that dives deep into the world
of one of the most under-appreciated sports and brings to the surface a
very human and raw emotion that only director Stacy Peralta could
capture. Everything from the structure, to the players, to the amazing
stock footage, to even the style in which this was filmed only
reinforced the beauty and power behind the sport of surfing. Of all the
surfing films that I have seen (Endless Summer, Billabong Odyssey, and
Step Into Liquid) this was the most consistent and relevant. Beginning
with the early ages of surfing (a brief history lesson) lasting all the
way till Laird's infamous ride, Riding Giants goes further into the
mind, heart, and soul of the sport than any of these other
documentaries. How does it do this? By giving us the whole story, from
start to finish, without fictionalizing or jig jagging from wave to
To begin this film was structurally sound. In the other films that I have seen about surfing, you sometimes find yourself jumping from new person to new person, wave to wave, event to event, without any knowledge of why or who? In Riding Giants, we have a very small cast of veterans and newbies. This allows you to really go deeper into the mind of each one. Also, instead of just riding waves, we are handed more history and more personal insight to the world than before. This is what really attracted me to this film. I was impressed that instead of showing all these big waves (because it is a big wave movie), we listen to stories and see first hand what these surfers had to overcome to get to those waves. I loved the information about the "beach bums" or father's of surfing. I am still floored by the amazing tales of Greg Noll and his early adventures into the harsh deep blue. Then, to see him in person, talking about what was going on in his mind, only added more fuel to the fire. The straightforward structure that Peralta followed allowed me to follow and walk away with more knowledge of the sport than with any of the earlier films. Peralta shows so much emotion and passion that you cannot help but be amazed by what these brave people have done, and where the sport is going.
Add to a immaculate structure some intense and creative cinematography, and you have darn near perfect film. Using techniques that I last saw in The Kid Stays in the Picture, Riding Giants creates some scenes that almost feel as if they are jumping out of the screen. While it isn't 3D, it is that flat dimensional feeling that you get when you put two pictures on top of each other. In this film, it worked. It created more depth to the scenes, and really added to not just the shock value (man these waves were huge), but also the danger that these guys constantly faced. If it broke differently or they maneuvered wrong, these waves would kill them. Some did die, but it didn't stop the sport. It only created more excitement and more passion to do better. It is this love of the ocean and sport that leads me to my final point.
The human element. So many of my earlier adventures in the world of surfing documentaries left me with beautiful waves, but very little about the people. The films knew that people were watching for the waves, so it would basically go from wave to wave to wave and the maybe a short second about the person. This film was the direct opposite. Peralta created this masterpiece by still giving us the waves, but devoting so much more attention onto the surfers and the immortal question of why they do this everyday. What rushes through their minds, what pushes them to go further, and the bonds that are formed while out there on the wild blue yonder. I felt like after watching this film that I not only knew more about big wave surfing, but also about the emotional side to the sport. This was an element not as developed in the other films and pushed Riding Giants to a whole new personal level.
Overall, this film was brilliant. Never have I witnessed so much passion, devotion, and love wrapped in a structurally sound film. From beginning to end, I was impressed. I would be very happy if this film won the Oscar this year for Best Documentary, and to see a new rebirth in the surfing world and open more doors for films of this nature.
Grade: ***** out of *****
There have been a few decent feature films about surfing ('Big
Wednesday', 'Endless Summer' and its sequel) and quite a few clunkers
('Blue Crush,' 'Point Break') that are still respectable for strong
surfing footage and homages to the cult within the culture. But I've
yet to see a film that surpasses the scope of 'Riding Giants,' which
simultaneously traces the history of big wave riding from its
Polynesian origins to its high-tech present, provides the audience with
some of the most breathtaking footage recorded on film (much of it
archival), and opens a window into the peculiar allure of high risk
activities to men and women of a certain mindset, as well as into the
evolution of surfing's own unique subculture of big wave riders.
The narrative revolves around three legends of big wave riding: Greg Noll, who pioneered the swells of the North Shore of Oahu and Waimea Bay, Jeff Clark, who discovered the Northern California break known as Mavericks and ushered Californian surfing into big wave territory, and Laird Hamilton, the undisputed ubermensch of the sport from the turn of the century to the present. Noll and Clark are framed reverently by director Stacy Peralta, but Hamilton is the star of the show, and rightly so: he is an all but perfect athlete, combining superior physical conditioning with an understanding of physics and wave behavior earned from a lifetime surfing the big breaks of the surf capital of the world, the Hawaiian islands. Because of his high-profile marriage to model/pro-volleyball star Gabrielle Reese and his magazine cover-friendly looks, Laird Hamilton has been a little overexposed in the media of late, but, matter of factly, the guy more than lives up to the hype, and he doesn't seem to be motivated by anything other than his love of surfing. Hamilton is all the more appealing for his apparent humility--he repeatedly insists that his acclaim also belongs to his teammates/companions, who tow him by jet-ski into waves no mortal could catch with the traditional 'paddle-in' method and then sweep in to pick him up before he gets caught in the wave wash of the next big one--embodying the free-spirited, 'because it's there' attitude shared by most elite high-risk athletes and the true ethos of hardcore surfers, who live for the ride and see the trappings of the culture (parties, chicks, sponsorship, etc.) as incidental if not entirely unimportant.
Certainly the most appealing aspect of the film is its portrayal of old school, hardcore surf culture, which has always been about the fraternal bond that crops up between people who share a common passion and are willing to devote everything to its pursuit. Peralta and co-writer Sam George manage to persuasively present the nearly monastic social order of the first surf devotees, contradicting the traditional 'beach bum' image associated with surfing in popular culture. If you happen to be someone who thinks of high-risk sporting activities as venues for purposeless thrill-seeking, 'Riding Giants' may give you the necessary insight into at least one extreme sport that, at its highest level, transforms mere mortals into epic heroes.
Wow! Stacy Peralta has followed up Dogtown and Z-Boys with an equally
stunning documentary about the history of the big-wave surfing culture in
America. Piecing together insider archival footage along with interviews
from surfing legends, we are transported into the daring and free-spirited
life of the early pioneers whose sheer passion for the sport spawned an
industry that today touches the lives of millions.
It's getting to know these icons and their stories that gives the film its warmth. You can feel the respect Peralta has for this group as we hear accounts of Greg Noll striding from a pack of awestruck fellow surfers on the beach to singularly challenge 50-foot swells off Hawaii's North Coast. Or Jeff Clark, surfing the outrageously dangerous Maverick off the northern California coast all alone for 15 years before it was discovered and became the surfing destination in California. And the storybook history of Laird Hamilton, today's surfing icon. Hearing Greg Noll reverently refer to Hamilton as the best surfer ever sent chills up my spine.
(As an aside, Noll, Clark and others were at the Sundance screenings. Noll humbly described himself as an old, over-the-hill surfer. He was deeply moved by the audience reception of him and film. Both he and Clark were as likable in person as they were in the film.)
Riding Giants pays homage to these extraordinary athletes while at the same time rewarding us with an insight into the magnitude and terrifying power of the waves they seek to conquer, the gut-wrenching vertical drops required to get into them, and the almost unfathomable combination of adrenaline and fear that the surfers experience each time they take on a monster swell.
All this, and the movie has more. For those of us that didn't live in California in the 60's, we get an insight into the impact of surfing on American pop culture. (And, to my surprise, the impact of the movie Gidget on surfing!) Peralta also weaves in a primer on some of the technical aspects of the sport and the history of innovation in equipment. I'm not a surfer, but like the rest of the Sundance audience, I was absolutely captivated by this film. Peralta is staking his claim as the Big Kahuna of American documentaries.
may have also been entitled, "RIDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS", considering not only the ridiculously statuesque height and power of the curling, H2O monsters they inhabit, but the sheer depth, width and character-breadth of the mere ubermensch who have chosen to do so.
Documentarian, Stacey Peralta has captured enough of the prime footage of big-wave riding in this stunning and jaw-dropping film (as well as its grainy, true and primordial history), to extricate the believer in anyone. And, as others have said, that's only the beginning
Never having ridden anything larger than smooth, 8-10 ft curlers off K-38 in Sonora, Mexico in my So Cal youth, I have 'no way' of wrapping my mind around what legendary surfers such as Greg Noll, Jeff Clark, Mark Foo (sadly, deceased) and Laird Hamilton have not only dreamed of, but accomplished in their fantastic lives. Beyond the staggering mental challenge of making the decision to 'commit' to the initial drop into 50-ft moving mountains at 40 mph, there's the strength and stamina continued over almost impossibly intense, short moments to consider along with the balance, the focus and the quick-wittedness to bring off a successful ride (not to mention the ability to hold your breath for over 2 minutes under 10,000 tons of churning, knashing, limb-ripping water during the stress of it all if you wipe out) -- 'success' in which case applies to much like that of an airplane landing; one where you are not absolutely and positively killed to death.
Along with the immensely stunning photography, the music track is a gift and in some moments, poetic. As well, you'll totally appreciate the mono/dialogs of this film, with most of the narration done by the giant-riders themselves making it a true documentary story. And the out-takes at the end of the film are gems.
Perhaps you've never up-righted yourself on a surfboard, or even allowed yourself to be carried along, virtually unaided, by gentle incoming swells. Maybe you don't even like the ocean. Not to worry you'll be magically lifted away on the 'shoulders of giants.'
The presentation is on DVD, widescreen, with excellent picture and
"Riding Giants" traces the history of surfing, at least in and around the USA, beginning about 1000 years ago, when history tells us early Hawaiians began using some type of board to ride the surf. But the movie begins in earnest in the 1950s, when 20-something surfers like Greg Noll became what was commonly called "beach bums" and surfed every day, all day, if they could.
An interesting fact presented is the influence of the "Gidget" movies with Sandra Dee, and similar movies which followed. While they presented an unrealistic, fantasy viewpoint of the surfing scene, they became the catalyst for the surfing explosion. Withing a few years from the late 1950s to the early 1960, the number of surfers went from a few thousand to a few million.
One of the producers of "Riding Giants" is Laird Hamilton, professional surfer, generally considered the best of the big wave surfers. The movie ends with him, profiling how he got into surfing as a young boy, and how he and his buddies invented the modern method of big wave surfing, being towed into a wave by jet ski, which also became the rescue boat. With this method they are now able to surf big, fast moving waves that are impossible to access the conventional way. Plus, this has allowed them to use much smaller boards, similar to snow boards, for more speed and agility.
Overall a very well-made and fascinating look at surfing. My favorite was Greg Noll who today is a heavy, round-faced older man in his 60s, but many film clips from the 50s and 60s showed him in action, considered the best of his generation. His present day interviews are both enlightening and very funny.
Riding Giants is an incredible documentary detailing the history and stories of three influential big-wave surfers, Gregg Noll, Jeff Clark, and Laird Hamilton. Stacy Peralta did an amazing job taking on the role of director and should be congratulated for doing such a brilliant job. The structure of the film is edited brilliantly and works perfectly with the narration, interviews, animation and surfing footage. The music soundtrack just adds to the overall satisfaction of watching this film, making Riding Giants brilliant viewing. Personal highlights include any of Greg Noll's comments, what with his straight-to-the-point frankness, Laird Hamilton's footage at Teahupoo, and the out-takes at the end of the movie. But really this entire film is one big, recommended highlight that comes highly recommended if you have the opportunity to see. It's a shame it isn't more well known, but it is a gem deserving of attention. 10/10
This was the best documentary I've ever seen!! I just saw Lords of Dogtown and wanted to know more about Stacy Peralta, and was surprised and happy to find out this was one of his films as well. Great Job Stacy! I was kicking back at work last week, bored O*&^%less and this movie came on. Growing up in Orange County in the 80's I surfed up and down the local beaches and so did my dad when he was a teenager. I grew up at the beach, my parents took me every weekend, I body surfed, boogeyboarded then moved up from there. This movie just captivated me. It was way before my time but it was awesome to see what these guys went through..TRUE PIONEERS! This movie is a collectors item.
I was able to attend Riding Giants @ Sundance Film Festival (it was this year's opening film) and can only say it is a must see movie - there is a magic in this extraordinary surfing documentary that fires up your heart & soul; dreams & spirit. Give thanks to the genius of Stacey Peralta (Dogtown & Z-boys) and his uncanny ability to brilliantly capture the life & death drama that is part of big wave riding. I especially enjoyed the shots at Half Moon Bay and the notoriouus surf area, Mavericks, discovered by local big wave surfing legend Jeff Clark. Of course there is so much more, but I loved the movie and the audience seemed to approve as well, giving it a 3 minute standing ovation.
There's been a spate of recent surfing movies that I seem to haphazardly run across without advance warning. I caught this treasure on digital cable this week and what a pleasant surprise it was! The focus is on the pioneers of big wave surfing from the 60's Greg Noll to our current Laird Hamilton, from Waimea Bay to Mavericks to Jaws. Hell, I could watch a movie just about Laird Hamilton - one of this generation's great athletes - so the rest is just gravy. There's loads of good surfing mixed in with interviews of past and present surfing stars, in pleasant, relaxed and unpretentious fashion. Of all the surfing movies I've seen this tells the big-wave story the best, and I think it's my favorite. Fantastic musical score. Enjoy!
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