Work to Surf? Natural Born Ego Leaves Allen Sarlo Surf Docu Flat
A Dogtown protégé with a singular focus and the advantage of a stable supportive family, Sarlo was, by many accounts. a strong power surfer respected for his ability to stand up to the waves of the surf world mecca in the 1980s and '90s, the North Shore.
What grounded him on the pro-circuit was his size though. A man of considerable hulk, who had played football in high school, Sarlo needed the canvas of a hefty wave to ply his fortune. But forget today's dream world of Teahupo'o's menacing slabs, the events of the 1980s world tour during Sarlo's time were routinely held in tragically small wave venues that belittled the talents of all competitors, but favored smaller lighter men.
Though Sarlo got his cover on Surfing Magazine, and surf-movie requisite names like Kelly Slater, Derrick Donner and Rob Machado flog his greatness in the flick, success as a competitive surfer eluded him.
Such a lament could make for a compelling portrait, something moving and universal, speaking to any art--the man who "could have" but instead was held back.
But, a natural born ego, self-reflection isn't in Sarlo's make up. If there were moments of doubt, questions, or regret, those are left out of the equation. There's barely room for a mention Sarlo's legendary aggressiveness out in the water.
Though one brief clip catches him physically knocking another surfer from a wave as assuredly as a linebacker removing an opponent, Sarlo's ruthlessness, which surpasses even the pecking order of the lineup, is left unturned. What of the man who routinely banishes friends from his wave, offering maybe a brief apology afterward, but then going back and doing it again and again.
Instead, Sarlo is depicted as a loving husband and father, a great surfer and a consummate businessman. The flick more corporate vid--reflective of Sarlo's money job in real estate--than documentary. Can't earn a living on the tour? Regroup, hit Hawaii, earn big wave riding creds, become a real estate broker, make bank, and hit pristine breaks all over the globe. Every frame trumpets success.
It's not coincidental that the film's most effective segments, including a low key interview with surfer Jay Riddle laying in history at Malibu, aren't about Sarlo.
Two photographs from the Dogtown years that, without Z-Boys/filmmaker Stacy Peralta's overblown hype, provide context about the time and the-men-of-the-time. One: a half-demolished home near the old pier. A stunning image, completely alien to today's million-dollar-landscape, that reminds you, "oh, my, god, that's where people were living then." The second, a riveting still of Zepher surfshop partners--Skip Engblom, Jeff Ho and CR Stecyk III--during an era they friggin owned. Skip, full of hope; CR resonates youthful innocence; and Jeff--just looks so happy.
And a moving and loving tribute to the late great big wave surfer Mark Foo. Sarlo and Foo were so close that the former watched the latter pack for that fateful trip to Mavericks, a journey that Foo would never return from. From the first second that Foo appears in the movie, drama grips the narrative. You know where this story ends, but not how it gets there.
Foo and Sarlo were not only running buds but business partners. And it is from their commitment to each other that the film derives its title. They planned to make it big in business so they could hop planes and surf wherever they wanted to and whenever they wanted to. Work to Surf.
For Sarlo, that dream became a reality. He got his house in Malibu and his trips to Indo, too. He still surfs Sunset the way he kills bunk waves at the Breakwater. And all that is worth acknowledging. But lost amidst the drive for success is the why of it. Where is the love of the wave? Without that link, I'm still thinking--maybe Sarlo should have been a football player.