Sydney Film Festival: Roller Dreams

Kate Young
13th Jun 2017

Welcome to Venice, California where life’s a beach. In the mid-70s, for many the beach meant two things; it was a place where you could go to be yourself and who ever that person was, was whoever you wanted to be. It was a place for many young African Americans who were seeking refuge from the hardships of inner city Los Angeles life. The ocean became their haven, as an eclectic community would gather to set aside all differences (race, gender, age and orientation) to enjoy the marvel of Roller Disco.

Roller Dreams is the debut of Australian Director Kate Hickey. Obsessed with the film Xanadu while growing up, Hickey set out once she was old enough to visit the birthplace of Roller Disco. What she uncovered was the untold stories of the founding members of the “roller-dance” craze and how these individuals had helped shape the culture.

There’s James Lighting aka MAD who was the godfather of roller dance at Venice Beach, having grown up during the Watts Riots in 1965, witnessing police brutality, as well as coming from a troubled home. He had a very real need to escape, which he found in the art of roller dancing. MAD's smooth style and boom box drew in others like the troubled youths Tyrell Ferguson aka The Kid and James "Jimmy" Rich, the misfit Sara "Sally" Messanger aka Soul Sister, and many more. Together, they created a family.

Through archival videos, photos and interviews with the skaters, we watch as they strut their stuff on the screen. Its mesmerising watching them do what they do so effortlessly and passionately. They were able to bring the moves and styles from the nightclub dance floors, and have more grace on eight wheels then most people do with two feet.

Much of the films drama comes as we see the demise of the OG’s Dreams. America went through many political changes between the 70’s and 90’s, in turn creating havoc in the lives of the skaters. In the 80’s Hollywood wanted to jump on the “Roller Disco” phenomenon, stealing moves for their films and “white washing” the skate culture. In the 90’s the riots surrounding the brutal murder of Rodney King saw a divide between police and the African American community; racial profiling started pin pointing the skaters with the mentality that any large congregation of people (mainly those of colour) meant that they must be up to no good. This line of thinking saw the skate park being bulldozed in order to ensure the crowds (at times 100’s of people) weren’t able to congregate in the area. With the skate park gone, so too was the heart of skating and for members like MAD, it felt like his light was taken away: “When they took the beach away, the dream didn’t fade, it was taken”.

Another key element to the film is music. Music was an enormous part of the skating movement and how as music changed with the times, the so vibe shifted as well. The music that had them originally dancing in the streets were the sounds of Prince and James Brown, it was music that brought people together and lifted their souls. The struggles of the 90s and the record companies this time trying to cash in, introduced hip hop and rap onto the scene, its underlying anger and violence was true representation of the times. There was no joy to be found just fear.

The highlight of the film is the reunion. To see this band of misfits who found a place to belong come back together to celebrate the love they have for skating is brilliant. From being in prison, through drug addictions, starting families, surviving strokes, being homelessness and even finding success, that bright light at the end of the tunnel is skating.

Roller Dreams is an enlightening journey into the LA culture through the eyes of this extraordinary group of people. They weren’t afraid to dream, they hoped that things were going to get better. Even when things seemed to fall apart, they still managed to rise above , driven by their shared love of skating. There’s no second guessing that Venice Beach would not be what it is today with out the skating culture and their would be no skating culture without these original gangsters who dared to dream.

Roller Dreams screened as part of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival.