Year: 2017
Director(s): Kate Hickey
Writer(s): Kate Hickey
Region of Origin: US

Rating: n/a
Color, 82 mins

Synopsis: A poignant, triumphant look at 1984 Venice Beach, CA, the epicenter of a pop culture explosion. (Source)

Today, Venice Beach is all things to all people, an unmistakable California landmark flooded with tourists wanting to visit its shores. In the 80s, however, the beach was a refuge for those in weary inner city neighborhoods, a melting pot where people of color and those too radical to fit in could come together under a common interest – roller dancing. Though the art is marginalized and almost forgotten in today’s climate, Kate Hickey’s Roller Dreams shows the craze at the peak of its power, attracting hundreds of onlookers and how its spectacle changed the lives of a tight-knit group of skaters. While tragic circumstances and social tensions ended the era prematurely, Hickey captures a special time and place bursting with hope and freedom. As divided as our culture is today, Hickey’s documentary is an important reminder that setting aside our differences to find a common bond may be difficult, but not entirely impossible.

To refine her scope, Hickey focuses on a set of skaters who were at the fore of Venice’s roller days – Larry, Sally, Bob, Terrell, Jimmy, Duvall and their defacto leader, Mad. What the doc does best, is show how each of these people forged a makeshift community despite being drastically different individuals. We really get to learn what roller dancing meant to each person, why they did it, what attracted them to it, including how their personalities turned into a singular style of dance. Getting to hear each person reminisce is eye opening, offering first hand accounts of the electricity flowing through the crowds, with the majority of their stories coupled with amazing archival footage. It’s pretty incredible to see how well documented the entire thing was, and in the best way, the film feels like a time capsule, transporting us back to a pivotal moment with its own set of struggles and hope.

Through roller dancing is film’s anchor, it’s the souls and spirit of Hickey’s subjects that make it so gripping. Hickey doesn’t limit her character portraits to the past, but traces each member of the roller crew to the present, showing us how monumental the Venice community was and how it shaped their lives. What happened in the past amidst a rapidly changing tide held permanent effects, and though each person had to move on out of necessity or tragic circumstance, their roller days remain an unforgettable part of who they are. As each person’s story unfolds, Hickey creates a tapestry that so precisely captures the best that we can be when we come together to set aside our differences.

In the end, Roller Dreams can’t be reduced to a simple sports doc – it’s an ambitious feat that covers pretty much everything – gentrification, racism, prejudice, marginalization, and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. In that way, the film is a sobering one, flying by on the charm of its subjects but also touching on key social ideas. Though the community at the film’s center was borne of segregation and hard times, this is proof that something great came of it, a love letter to a particular time, told by the people who were fundamentally changed by it. From the music, to the slick movies, to the colorful personalities, it’s hard to come out of the film without a smile.

SG