Nick Carroll On: The Waterboys
COASTALWATCH | REVIEWS
Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton
Directed by Rory Kennedy
RATING: 4.5/5 STARS
Best bits: Sharp storytelling, DD’s interviews, Don King’s
Ummm…: Felt 15 minutes too long
By pure fluke, these films just publicly premiered in the US within two days of each other. It must have been a fluke — or serendipity, or something. Laird and Kai, at the same time? Towing, sailing, foiling? How much Maui can we take?
Thankfully they’re very different people, and so are these films.
You can tell the differences just by a look at the titles. “Paradigm Lost” is just a play on words, fanciful, meaning anything or nothing, like the many kinds of water-play it features. “Take Every Wave” is a storyteller’s title, designed to get straight to the heart of its subject, and its clarity is no surprise, when you consider who made it.
Rory Kennedy has done a lot of very significant documentary work in far darker subject areas, usually with husband Mark Bailey as scriptwriter. She is an intelligent, observant and no-bullshit sort of person. She is also a scion of a great American family, which makes Laird a great subject for her; could anyone be more American, more irrepressibly macho, can-do inventive, muscly, good-looking, semi-cartoonishly Superman, than Laird?
But he’s growing older and the film captures him as such: talking to his surgeon about his arthritic hip, then later, walking crabwise to his truck to load his new stainless-steel foil strut and board. His tow partner Terry Chung is amused: “You’re walking like that and you’re gonna ride these waves today?” Hell yeah he is. You almost expect him to do it blindfold.
Young Kai Lenny might be arthritic some day, but right now, he is as loose a human as rides a surfboard. Or a kite-board. Or a racing SUP. Or a foil-board. Or a wave-riding SUP at 40 foot Jaws. Or dammit, a foil-bodyboard. Kai is the golden child, son of sailboarders, who was taken foil-towing at the age of nine, and first did the Molokai paddle race (in a team) at 12. On Maui he hangs around with a bunch of almost impossibly talented surfers, sailboarders and kiters, all seemingly as cruisy and fancy-free as he, even though they are doing shit no human has a right to do. If you’ve never heard of Airton Cozzolino, well, look out.
Kai does scary things, but Laird IS scary. Being abandoned by his father as a kid might have stunted another kind of person; young Laird just went out and hunted down a replacement. That Dad, legendary North Shore surfer Bill Hamilton, beat him savagely for disobedience; Laird showed the scars off at school like they were trophies. “It prepared me,” he says to camera, and kinda chuckles. Pain, the physical kind, has been part of his life for a long time.
Despite being uber-competitive, Laird chucked surf competition early. The idea of being judged on his performance, by some panel of non-peers, repelled him. Laird is a pioneer: driven, insanely committed, generous at times, holding his line on land with the same kind of uncompromising force he uses in the water. He has a very real marriage to the fantastic Gabrielle Reece, and has his own tight group of friends, who are whittled down through the film, as life events take their toll. But he is not nice. By contrast, Kai is nice. There’s barely a clip of his face when he isn’t smiling. Kai’s happy to compete, because when he does, he says, “it helps me do things I might not do otherwise.” He fails to win Molokai’s SUP division, then knuckles down and does win, breaking the race record in the process. He tow-surfs Jaws like it’s four foot V-Land and doesn’t claim once. He learns to paddle a shortboard foil and ride it in the downwind channel off northern Maui, then takes a bunch of buddies out and helps them learn to do it too. He flows.
There’s a great moment in the highly crafted Take Every Wave storyline, when Laird ends up at Teahupoo on the “Millennium Wave”, towed in by the epic Darrick Doerner, whose interview clips shine up the film. “I looked around and he wasn’t there,” says DD, eyes wide, “and I realise! He let go of the rope!” Laird sits in the channel and cries. His marriage is shaky and he’s just ridden the wave of his life, the one that shut everybody up forever. Rory and Mark aren’t crass enough to psychoanalyse the moment. All Laird says is “something changed”.
There’s no such clutch moment in Paradigm Lost. Kai doesn’t need to change, he’s pretty much perfect. For 20 seconds toward the end of Paradigm, he’s caught in shot with Laird and their mutual friend Dave Kalama. Kai’s permanent smile takes on an awestruck shade as he gazes up at surfing’s ultimate Alpha Male; Laird grins as they recall Kai’s first tow session at Jaws. “I remember you were all, ‘One more!’” he says to the super-boy. “I think there were five more ‘One mores’”.
But… Waterman? That term’s always grated me a bit, and not just ‘cause of its cheesy gender-ness. Surfers sometimes suffer for their passion, their lives don’t always go as planned, but “waterman” is too serious a word for what they or any of us do. We’re basically just mucking around. Laird’s old buddy Buzzy Kerbox gets him, in the film’s single best line: “Open up that big body and you’d find a little kid at the controls”.
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