Meet Greg Noll. He’s the former king of big-wave surfers, still a beast of a man well into his golden years.
He’s also the best reason to watch “Riding Giants,” a new documentary capturing the rise and glory of surf culture, U.S.A.
The film begins with an imaginative sprint through surfing’s roots, but quickly rejoins the scene in the United States circa the 1950s.
It’s here where “Giants” towers over other surfing yarns. Filmmaker and amateur surfer Stacy Peralta (the man responsible for 2001’s skateboard opus “Dogtown and Z-Boys”) coaxes colorful memories from the old-school surfers. Unfortunately, the film stumbles as it approaches the present. The current crop of surf kings, notably Laird Hamilton, may possess skills superior to those of their predecessors, but as raconteurs they can’t touch them.
“Giants’” first half will delight even those who will never dip a toe in the ocean. Who wouldn’t marvel at the wonders performed on these rudimentary surfboards?
Listening to the old-timers reflect on their glory days is sheer pleasure, as is hearing them blast Hollywood surf piffle like the popular “Gidget” features.
“Giants” unearths a thick cache of ‘50s-era footage to piece together the sport’s formative years and illuminate the men who chased the biggest waves.
Mostly thin and impossibly tan, these men forsook jobs, material possessions and just about everything else our culture values to prep for the next big wave. We rarely see or hear what made them tick, a minor problem that swells like the proverbial wave as the minutes tick by.
Mr. Peralta’s visuals complement the archival footage, as the director massages even black and white sketches into compelling glimpses of surfing lore.
The film captures how the surf scene shifted repeatedly during the past 50 years. Hawaii’s Waimea Bay features prominently in the surf hot spots, but so do various locations on the West Coast.
Mr. Peralta’s timeline starts to jumble as he reaches the 1980s, and at the same time his movie starts taking on water.
Once the modern era begins, Mr. Peralta loses his grip on the mainstream crowd. Surf fiends will watch, entranced, but the rest of us will glaze over as one big wave after another is described with unchecked hyperbole.
Mr. Peralta might have reeled the surfing laity back in if he’d peeked into the lives of the surfers. In one telling segment, several surfers admit how grumpy they grow if the waves aren’t cooperating during a given day or week. We need more of that, more of the inner workings of these remarkable men — women seem barely a part of the surf scene in Mr. Peralta’s film — to keep us interested.
Mr. Peralta clearly is enamored with the surfer milieu partially revealed in “Riding Giants,” showing little to debunk the mystique that’s grown up around the subculture.
Had “Giants” deflated the myths and shown the flesh and blood heroes behind the frothing ocean waves, the film could have lured even the palest among us back to the beach.