“I like to have my shit organic and natural,” says one of the original roller-skaters, Terrell, as we watch his younger self spinning on screen in vibrant, vintage video footage. His moves are bold and showy, but they flow effortlessly from one into the next. That fluidity on eight wheels, with the distinct panache of 1980s Venice Beach, is something first-time director Kate Hickey attempts to emulate in the effervescent documentary Roller Dreams. Despite the lush cinematography and its soulful soundtrack, Hickey’s ambitious breadth of material is hindered by the lack of narrative focus. Only when the documentary pauses to contemplate the interplay of authenticity and nostalgia do we attain some proper insight into the impact of skating on its subjects’ lives.
Roller Dreams traces the Venice roller-skating phenomenon from its ascent in the 1980s through to the tumultuous 1990s. Originally, the Beach served as a haven and space of cultural expression for Black and Hispanic residents amidst the tense socio-political climate of 1980s inner-city LA. Hickey introduces us to the assembly of six roller-skating legends by way of their diverse skating styles. There’s Sally, smooth and graceful; Terrell, the entertainer; Duval with his subversive, superhero-inspired outfits. Larry and Jimmy add to the crew, with the documentary waiting until the very last second to capitalise on suspense and reveal their iconic leader, Mad. As police intervention and personal conflicts threaten its status as a safe and celebrated space, the futures of the skaters, and their fans, come into question.
Hickey’s film is barely kept afloat by this vague through-line. The documentary’s meandering style impedes the breadth of its scope. There is an initial appeal to Hickey’s free-form style; having removed herself from the story, her work becomes relaxed and informal in its reliance on the intermingled talking heads and voiceovers. However, we fall short of experiencing a much sought-after intimacy when moments are abruptly cut short, Hickey barely delving beneath the surface of each individual skater’s complex life. Larry’s involvement with drugs and the prison system spanned a decade of his life; Sally now lives below the poverty line in the garage of a house. Huge life events become footnotes bereft of poignancy, as a result of the immense wealth of material to cover and the overly rigorous editing.1
It leaves us to wonder of the potential of letting the anecdotes breathe. Perhaps with only one subject to hone in on, the film could examine with detail the greater social issues at play. As it is, the documentary sticks to its ensemble cast but stops short of then reaping the benefits of their potential onscreen interaction together. It feels like a lost opportunity to depict the group’s camaraderie and dynamic, and to grasp what the Beach meant to them as a community. Roller Dreams tells us they were a family in dialogue, but never portrays this in a tangible, visual fashion.
The documentary finds a surprising emotional impact in its final third, dwelling on an inherent, and inevitable, nostalgia. Cinematographer Toby Oliver brings us modern-day Venice Beach in static locked-off shots, with the sea and sky awash in dreamy, washed-out pinks, blues and oranges straight from Pantone’s Instagram. Stray beachgoers cut solitary figures as they pass quiet shopfronts. These contemporary cutaways lack the dynamism, the frenetic energy and vitality, of the grainy, oversaturated archival footage. The same note of wistful nostalgia tinges each skater’s reminiscence about the Beach. And that reminiscence may represent a view of the times viewed through rose-tinted glasses, but doesn’t it speak to the visceral feeling of the era and movement as it was lived by them?
That nostalgia denotes an era in the skaters’ lives when they lived as their authentic selves, able to remove themselves from hardships and distractions. It’s the reason Mad, the skaters’ leader, imposes self-exile to Utah after he’s no longer able to skate. The gravity of that time, and that movement, is not lost on us. On a greater level, the authenticity of Venice Beach itself is questioned. The gentrification that followed severe police intervention has altered the funky beachside area beyond recognition. Despite the nature of nostalgia that demands our memories obscure the actual details of the past, Roller Dreams’ archival footage at least approaches an impression of personal truth for those skaters — and a Venice Beach they’ll never see again.