Title: Waiting for Lightning
Director: Jacob Rosenberg
Another descendant of “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” Stacy Peralta’s influential 2001 documentary about the 1970s rise of popular skateboarding culture and the colorful characters who populated it, “Waiting for Lightning” details the life story of visionary skater, daredevil and X Games star Danny Way, building up to his 2005 attempt to jump the Great Wall of China. A slick technical package and a willingness to peer at least a bit into the difficult childhood and fractured psyche of its subject give this movie a leg up on a lot of its less inquisitive, like-minded, hagiographic stunt spectaculars, like “Nitro Circus: The Movie.”
Way was born in Portland, but grew up mostly in Vista, California, north of San Diego. After the death of his biological father in a prison incident (a blind spot that the movie mentions, but unsatisfactorily explains), his mother briefly remarried, but then dipped into drugs, alcohol and a string of abusive relationships, leaving Way and his older brother Damon to frequently fend for themselves. Skateboarding became a refuge, and though Danny was small, he was an obvious talent. By the time he was 10 years old he had sponsorships from successful skateboard companies. He dropped out of school after the 9th grade, turning pro to compete in competitions and collect checks for board sales.
Persistent practice helped hone his vertical skill set, and world records followed. Even more importantly, though, Danny became known for pushing the boundaries of what was possible on a skateboard — bomb-dropping from a helicopter onto a ramp, and building his own “MegaRamp,” on which he completed a 65-foot horizontal jump. A serious surfing accident temporarily waylaid him briefly in the mid-1990s, but Danny battled back, winning various gold medals at different X Games and setting the stage for a huge jump on a specially constructed ramp over a portion of the Great Wall of China.
As directed in friendly fashion by Jacob Rosenberg, “Waiting for Lightning” tracks a formula familiar to many such biographies — lionizing interviews with peers and colleagues, and loads of home video footage (including an amusing glimpse of a “Wrong Way” traffic sign spray-painted over with Danny’s name). Because skateboarding culture really came of age with the first couple waves of consumer video cameras, and filming one’s stunts with friends was always part and parcel of an afternoon’s practice, there is a solid spread of material here, of both crazy jumps and fraternal rough-housing. This gives “Waiting for Lightning” a nice, natural chronological spine, but Rosenberg also sprinkles in a couple recreations, with such a light, artful touch that one barely notices it.
Interviewees, meanwhile, include pro skaters Tony Hawk, Rob Dyrdek, Travis Pastrana, Matt Hensley, Bod Boyle and Colin McKay, surfer Laird Hamilton, photographer Mike Blabac, and Way’s older brother and mother, Mary O’Dea. The latter two in particular help give a sense of the impact of the sudden 1994 death of Mike Ternasky, a mentor and father figure who, after helping give Danny big breaks in the skateboarding world, would be taken out of his life too soon, like Way’s father and stepfather before him. Their candid reflections — along with some musings from the chief subject, who in all honesty is very open but not always the most articulate about his feelings — shed light on Way’s drive, and the hole inside of him that skateboarding helped fill.
As such, despite its comically frequent invocation of the word gnarly, “Waiting for Lightning” is a sensitive exploration of that little flower that finds its way into the world between two slabs of concrete. The undereducated product of a busted home, Way still found his way in the world, and managed to entertain a lot of people along the road.
Written by: Brent Simon