WATCH the roller skate films of the late 1970s – such as Skatetown USA and Roller Boogie – and you will get the impression that this trend was born out of white neighbourhoods and a rather antiseptic culture.
Kate Hickey’s vibrant documentary Roller Dreams vanishes this big-screen illusion by taking us back to the true wheels behind this cultural movement. A product of black urban culture, roller skating flourished to blue skies, scantily clad bodies and the glorious beats of James Brown and Prince. It was organic and diverse – anything but Hollywood’s whitewashing representation.
Roller Dreams flies out of the gate with a zinging tempo and highly quotable start, introducing us to the Venice Beach roller skating scene and the ‘OGs’ (Original Gangsters) – Mad, Sally, Jimmy, Larry, Terrell and Duval – who were the driving force behind it.
These OGs were the short shorts and tank top-wearing rock stars of Venice Beach – deftly talented, crowd-pleasing and sexy. Hickey gives voice to the eccentricities and stories of each of them, including the long-legged ‘Cadillac on wheels’ – Sally – and the versatile ‘Swiss-Army knife of skating’ – Larry.
But from within this cast of flamboyant characters it is Mad who emerges as the central focus of the documentary. A towering figure with a booming voice to match, the leader of the OGs is built up to mythical status by his fellow skaters. There are tales of Mad breaking up fights between the Bloods and Crips with ease, as well as an unrivalled sexual magnetism that even Sally falls prey of.
It all feeds into Mad’s image as ‘The Godfather’ of skating. A masculine force who creates ‘liquid poetry when on wheels’. Hickey’s access to a depth of archival footage and photos, showing Mad in his pomp, add to his aura. The footage also helps us to visualise the bohemian Venice scene that the OGs longingly describe.
However, all of this smoothness on skates cannot – and does not – last forever. Hickey sweeps the skating fun to one side to look at the downfall of the roller skaters’ dreams, a surprisingly downbeat route that takes us along a road with potholes aplenty – racial tension, drugs, gentrification and commercialism.
This is a documentary that rolls fast and groovily, but also hits hard and true. From its dancing start to its bitter-sweet end, Roller Dreams skates to the heart of a once-vibrant Venice Beach and tell us why it has been washed away.
Vibrancy and heartbreak on wheels – an emotional rollercoaster of a documentary.