Taking a breather from the social-issues docs that have been her main sphere, prolific nonfiction filmmaker Rory Kennedy steers the audience on an exhilarating ride in Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. An extreme-sports film that’s also a laser-focused biographical study of a crazy man lacking a functioning fear mechanism, this portrait of the charismatic big-wave surfer catalogues almost four decades of Hamilton’s achievements while offering an admiring assessment of his unstoppable drive. Tapping into a wealth of breathtaking action footage, the film naturally is at its most exciting when it puts us right there in the surging waters.
Take Every Wave is a great companion piece to Riding Giants, the 2004 doc by Stacy Peralta and Sam George that also featured Hamilton in a wider look at surf culture, its history and its surrounding mythology. Kennedy’s more personality-focused study is no less illuminating or vicariously kinetic. While films on the subject tend to cater to hardcore converts, the wide success of William Finnegan’s 2016 Pulitzer-winning surf memoir, Barbarian Days, could help the right distributor draw new audiences.
Written by Mark Bailey and Jack Youngelson, and edited by Azin Samari, the expertly shaped narrative zigs and zags like the most dexterous board rider between Southern California and Hawaii, with detours to Bermuda, Tahiti and briefly to Europe for one particularly amusing daredevil adventure. It’s framed against a recent winter surf season on Hamilton’s childhood home of Kauai island, where at the start of the film, El Nino storm systems are expected to pump the largest swells ever recorded there. He confesses he’s been waiting his whole life to ride waves this size.
The subject was born in San Francisco in 1964; his father made an early exit to join the Merchant Marines, and his mother Joann moved them to Oahu when he was just 1 year old. It was that towheaded kid, already enamored of the ocean, that first met surfer and custom board maker Bill Hamilton, who was 17 when he married Joann and became Laird’s adoptive father. The family lived for a time near the famous Pipeline with its 25- to 30-foot waves, meaning Laird grew up amongst the legendary local surfers.
Rebellious by nature, he was a picked-on white minority among native Hawaiians, with a hot-tempered stepfather unprepared for parenting, which made the water a place he could go to escape the friction on land. He became a naturally gifted surfer, and while barely into his teens, he acquired a reputation as a hard-charging freak, going out on big waves that were mostly the domain of veterans. Before long, he quit school to pursue surfing full time.
This early-life section is revisited in candid interviews with family and friends, as well as Hamilton’s own recollections and extensive home-movies from the time, shedding light on the forces that fueled his independence from a young age. The missing commentator is Joann, who died in 1997 and is seen only in a handful of clips. Her presence lingers in her son’s regret that she never got to see him mature into the stable family man he is today, though the film glosses over a presumably rockier past personal life, with only the briefest mention of a first marriage.
Considering Hamilton’s development from surf prodigy into one-man brand, the major anomaly in his life story is that he never went pro. His rejection of competitive sports is pegged to his refusal to be judged. “He doesn’t like to lose,” is how Bill Hamilton bluntly puts it; the latter’s experience with the politics of surf contests allegedly helped to deter his stepson.
However, Kennedy, the writers and interview subjects including Hamilton’s wife of 20 years, professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, make a convincing case that he competes hardest against himself. Outside of the surf season, he trains in the gym or pool with more dedication than many athletes half his age. And at 52, his body has taken a lot of punishment, with multiple breakages and arthritis in his hip. While he shows no inclination to slow down, it seems clear this film project was conceived to preserve his legacy while he’s still active, keeping the focus on his surfing and omitting any mention of the “Malibu Mob” network of celebrity and pro-athlete friends to which Hamilton and Reece have frequently been linked.
But there are colorful forays into Hamilton’s fame beyond the waves. That includes a brush with Hollywood, playing a prize jerk pro-surfer in North Shore, a 1987 entry considered cheesy even by the high standards of narrative surf movies. And he followed his buddy and fellow surfer Buzzy Kerbox into modeling, notably paired with Brooke Shields in a Bruce Weber spread for Life magazine. But Hamilton’s refusal to go to casting calls or auditions limited all that, and his primary income sources appear to have been sponsorship deals and revenue from a production company specializing in surf videos.
That venture, Strapped, was hatched together with a tight-knit crew of watermen that included Kerbox, Darrick Deorner and Dave Kalama, and took its name from the Velcro attachments that kept their feet on their boards. They developed tow-in surfing in the 1990s, riding out on inflatable boats and later jet skis to catch massive waves of 60 feet or more, inaccessible by paddling, at the Pe’ahi break off Maui, nicknamed “Jaws.” But the footage and photographs of their stunts attracted so much media attention that Pe’ahi turned overnight from a semi-private playground into a dangerous traffic jam of inexperienced riders.
Old-school surfing purists viewed the introduction of watercraft machinery as a violation of the traditional harmony of the surfer-ocean pact. Given that Hamilton had been instrumental in popularizing tow-in surfing and turning Pe’ahi into a circus, much of the backlash was directed at him. He was also a key innovator in the controversial practice of foil-boarding; swapping information with America’s Cup team engineers about the aerodynamics of riding a board elevated on a strut, enabling the surfer to glide above the water and avoid its drag.
But his critics appear to have been largely silenced when he stunned the surfing world and secured a place in recorded history in 2000 by riding what’s described in amusing dude-poetry terms as “the wave of heaviest consequence,” over the hazardously shallow Teahupo’o Reef in Tahiti.
That became Hamilton’s defining moment, but the increased spotlight on him excluded his surfing brotherhood, which led to the Strapped production company being dismantled and the abrupt end of important friendships. “Big dogs eat first,” says Hamilton earlier in the film, admitting he was obnoxious about grabbing any wave he wanted rather than observing his place in the queue. To some extent that attitude is echoed in his unapologetic justification for the Strapped divorce.
But despite suggestions of an egomaniacal side — probably an essential component for a sportsman who sealed his immortality risking paralysis and death — he remains an appealing subject who appears sincere in his view that surfers watch each other’s backs, often in life-or-death situations. One of the most hair-raising sections of the doc recounts Hamilton’s daring rescue in 2007 of Brett Lickle, who was knocked from a watercraft off Maui’s North Shore and had his leg filleted by the fin on a board.
The footage throughout is extraordinary, with Hamilton and other board riders etching lines in glassy monoliths before the avalanche crashes down, doing airborne loops over rolling waves, or crouching like skateboarders as they zoom through foaming tunnels of water. Watching all this surf ballet is a blast, often combining awe with white-knuckle terror. But there are images of stirring tranquility, too, such as hypnotic shots of Hamilton swimming, seal-like, beneath waves. Perhaps the most beautiful sequence is saved for last, showing Hamilton incredibly poised on an epic ride that seems to last for days and appears almost effortless. That lyrical image alone backs up the assertion, made after his Tahiti achievement, that he has nothing left to prove.
Kennedy has assembled the densely packed material into a slick, highly entertaining chronicle, further energized by Nathan Larson’s music and by a terrific playlist that spans the decades, ending on a winking note of outlaw glorification with Jack Nitzsche’s early-’60s classic, “The Lonely Surfer.”
Production company: Moxie Firecracker Films
Director: Rory Kennedy
Writers: Mark Bailey, Jack Youngelson
Producers: Rory Kennedy, Paul Speaker, Mark Bailey, Jack Youngelson
Executive producers: Jonathan S. Marshall, William Cawley
Directors of photography: Alice Gu, Don King
Music: Nathan Larson
Editor: Azin Samari
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)