It's soft focus hagiography, Kelly is treated with a gentle reverence, adored by every camera angle.
There’s no great reveal moment into the character of Kelly Slater in the Emmy award winning HBO doco Slater 24/7, nothing as gobsmackingly compelling as the tête-à-têtes with healer Charlie Goldsmith in the WSL Soundwaves short.
Maybe the greatest reveal was Kelly learning from that expose to be more circumspect and hence less vulnerable to the public slaying he copped after the Soundwaves episode was broadcast.
HBO’s doco is very good.
Very, very good.
As you’d expect.
Slick, high production values, a super abundance of emotional cliches which hit all the right spots. Pretty much perfect fodder for mainstream audiences.
You could show it to your Granny and she’d now “get” Slater. We get the ultra-competitive war horse, with a self-confessed case of small man’s syndrome from an upbringing on the wrong side of the tracks in small town coastal Florida, writ large.
I see it as being of a piece with the great meta-narrative of Kelly’s life which has run parallel with his competitive surfing career: making him a main street sporting star and celebrity in American life. He reached that point easily and effortlessly in the Australian public imagination almost from day one, first as anti-hero when he relegated a generation of Australian surfing stars to the status of second rate supporting acts. Then, as genuine economic hero to a generation of tourism bureaucrats who saw in his power to draw a crowd the answer to their prayers to hit key targets. An official in the WA Tourism department cited, by way of example, Kelly’s appearance in the Margaret River Pro when it was a QS, as the chief metric and reason the government was willing the spend to up the event to CT level.
Sadly, Kelly has never reached the same level of stardom in his native country. Driving a couple of Floridian gals from Byron Bay to the Gold Coast airport I was stunned they had never heard of our guy Kelly. Mid-Twenties, bright as buttons. You will not find specimens of any part of the sexual spectrum in Australia who are unaware of Mick Fanning, nor Kelly for that matter.
That subject isn’t touched upon in the HBO doco.
The principal animating force is Kelly’s drive to compete and his battle with an ageing body that houses a mind that still throbs with the passion of competing and, as the elegant opening voiceover insists, shows a “stubborn unwillingness to let time dictate his story.”
It’s soft focus hagiography, Kelly is treated with a gentle reverence, adored by every camera angle. You can see why he plays now in this end of the pool. With the disintegration of the surf industry/media model an increasingly belligerent surf media is as likely to mock as worship the eleven-time world champ.
Any jagged-edged rocks could be carefully sieved out either in pre or post production; there is nothing approaching the openly cringey moments we got in the Soundwaves Ep.
It seems to me the conflict in the film comes from the question which remains unasked in the film, but yet lurks in every scene like Chekhov’s Black Monk. In that story, a brilliant scholar is convinced by a black monk that he is chosen by God for a special purpose.
As the scholar becomes more deluded he becomes convinced that without the Black Monk he is doomed to a lifetime of mediocrity instead of genius. By that analogy, Kelly’s battle with time and his determination to only go out when the “battery is done” has a tragic edge to it. In the Chekhov story the scholar succumbs to one final hallucination, the Black Monk guides him to incorporeal genius and he dies with a smile.
There’s no such tragic ending in the Doco.
More an extended meditative foreplay leading up to last years Pipe Masters. Which, according to Kelly, if had won, would have been his final victory, his genius now immortalised and he could go out with a smile. The film ends, bizarrely, before the Pipe Masters, an extended foreplay with no denouement.
We know how the story ends of course. A semi-final loss to winner and world champ Italo Ferreira.
We know Kelly keeps the Black Monk close by, commits to his genius.
The question, unasked in the doco – will he keep going and for how long? – is answered in the affirmative. At least for one more year.
While the film may be superficial for the aficionado there are many wonderful moments to savour. A sweaty Kelly rolling on the mat with Joel Tudor in a ju-jitsu scene is compelling, for many reasons.
Despite my intense dislike of golf, I found the golf scene marvellously entertaining; Benji Weatherly heckling Kelly during a golf swing was gold. Even I could see Abe Lerner was there to make Kelly look good. There was something expressive and yet incredibly enigmatic in girlfriend Kalani Miller’s Mona Lisa smile, whilst watching Kelly compete at Haliewa. The four-fin with nubster Cymatic surfing at six-to-eight-foot Haleiwa is a flashback to the 2011 New York high point.
In the end, Kelly’s monstrous yet utterly necessary self-obsession is tempered with the awakenings of self-awareness. He’s alien to us and yet we have to accept him. Reflecting on his life he realises how “it’s all gone my way” and then credits himself for the luck by suggesting that maybe “it’s just looking with the right perspective, the right lens.”
He hesitates when suggesting life advice to others, realising that pursuing your passion and making some kind of living out of it is a rare outcome available to the few, not the many.
Chasing the spectral shadow of pro surfing success is our man Kelly born with the rainbow wrapped around his shoulders.
This madman’s delirium is no lofty ideal but it gives his life purpose, making it joyful and happy.
For most, chasing a pro surfing dream is, on the contrary, an evil genius who entices with vile flattery and spits you out shaken and confused. A true black monk.
For us, the spectators, we imbibe the dream at our leisure, in the hope and mostly vain expectation of being relieved of the burden of depressing reality.
For that reason, we hope Kelly is the rarest of the rare: the one who never dies.
(Editor’s note: If you don’t live in the US, it ain’t an easy film to get on your screen. If your country doesn’t have HBO, or won’t share, get y’self a VPN and sign up for a free-month’s trial at Amazon HBO. Bonus is you’ll get to watch Momentum Generation, a truly brilliant film, for free, too.)