Sydney Film Festival Review: Roller Dreams (USA/AUS 2017) tells the story of the roller skating dancers you’ve never heard of

It’s the late 1970’s Venice California is the birthplace of a new go-to trend, roller-dancing, and a group of young roller skaters, almost all exclusively African-American, are about to bring it to the people. Documentary film Roller Dreams takes a look at this iconic but short-lived group of skaters, the Venice scene in the 80’s and how it’s changed, as well as the impact of gentrification and an increasing police presence that has since gone on to impact the community and bring about a not so favourable change.

Australian debut director Kate Hickey along with producers Cecilia Ritchie and Diana Ward have carved out a documentary about a niche group and created an intimate look into what brought these people to roller skating. Beginning with a look into Venice and Venice Beach itself, one of the few places where African Americans and Hispanics could socialise and relax, away from the tumultuous gang-riddled suburbs. They introduce us to the eclectic characters dubbed the “OG” – original gangsters – that brought roller skating to the beach, with fond recollections by various members about their day’s roller-dancing down at Venice.

There’s James Lightning aka Mad, the leader and godfather of the roller-skaters. Sara Messenger aka Sally, who had never skated before until Mad convinced her to put on a pair and try it, she never looked back. Larry Pitts was another smooth skater, preferring slower more intricate legwork. Terrell Ferguson and James “Jimmy” Rich were the youngest of the group taking their signature moves and flirting with all the girls. Whilst Duval Stowers the comic artist who created an alter-ego ‘Superion’ for himself as he rolls around the beach in his own unique spandex Superman outfit. This bunch of skaters all fiercely individual in style and personalities all managed to congregate and come together at that Venice skate park and what is clear is their fondness for each other and how much this small group had become like a family during those heady years.

Through archival footage, photos and narratives by our skaters we get to see them in action and watching them move is an absolute treat. As somebody who dabbled in roller skating as a kid, I could only have ever dreamed and wished to be as good as the OG’s. And yet even though none of them had any sort of formal training or practice, they manage to make it look effortless as they gyrate to music by Prince and James Brown. Taking the style and moves off a dance floor and seamlessly converting it into fluid movements on 8 wheels, and knowing from my own minimal experience, it’s not as easy as it looks.

After we go through introductions with all the OG’s the film then proceeds to break down some of the more politically charged elements. Discussing the Watts area riots of 1967, the whitewashing of roller skating in mainstream popular culture, the Rodney King riots of 1992, the gentrification of Venice, the hard-line push by the police to manage the influx of African-Americans to the area, and to a degree the personal breakdowns and failures of particular members of the group.

It feels like an abrupt downshift in tone and mood but at the same time, you can see how director Hickey is trying to thread all of these sombre or loaded themes into the lives of these people and how roller-dancing was their outlet, and Venice their sanctuary from the gang warfare in their neighbourhoods and the problems that seemed to keep coming up at every turn. Another surprising element is how crucial the music was to the skaters and how joyous empowering music of the late 70’s and 80’s became less appealing once rap and rap culture became the mainstay of commercial music in the 90’s.

Roller Dreams takes us on an educational journey about Los Angeles’ racial challenges focused in particular through the experiences of a niche group of roller skaters. They had hopes, dreams, aspirations and believed that times were changing, only to see so much of it fall apart. The roller-dancing troupe of Venice managed to transcend all the personal hardships to achieve positivity through their shared love of roller skating. And almost ironically everything old is soon to be new again as even now, roller skating is becoming a popular activity for young and old alike.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 80 minutes

Roller Dreams is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival on Sunday 11 June at Event Cinemas George Street, followed by a Roller Dreams Party at The Hub afterward commencing 9pm.
For tickets click here.

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