Directed by: Jeff Tremaine
In my high school days I picked up an unreasonably heavy, gold-framed Mongoose flatland bike, thinking that I was going to get into this whole BMX thing, unaware that it was going to be just a phase. Unaware that the kind of bike I had wasn’t really meant for going down ramps and off of jumps. Unaware that within a few months’ time I would switch over to rollerblades. And ultimately unaware of who Mat ‘The Condor’ Hoffman was.
I guess you could call me a poser. I don’t know if people still do that, since I haven’t stepped foot inside a skate park for years now and it seems like such a ’90s term, but I pretty much have no problem being called that. I couldn’t do anything on a bike, except balance it long enough not to crash, and I was extremely skilled in not going over the handlebars (which basically means I never tried anything crazy enough to put me in that situation). When it came right down to it, I simply wasn’t prepared to put myself through the gnar that other people who were far more dedicated to riding seemingly were; I was the kind who got phased whenever his foot slipped the pedal and had it swing back around and smack him right in the shin. Forget about trying to throw down a 720 on a jump box or going inverted on a 10-foot tall vert ramp.
The Birth of Big Air, directed by Jackass‘ very own Jeff Tremaine and produced by several familiar names — Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze and Mat Hoffman himself — represents somewhat of a surface-level examination of Hoffman’s journey from teenage prodigy to becoming a staple of the industry. Tremaine packs a lot of information into his hour-long feature, though if you’ve been a follower of the sport for a couple of years you’re not likely to find too many revelations here. For anyone else however, The Birth of Big Air should prove insightful in its characterizing of one of the most radical personalities in the game, one that’s been around since the late ’80s.
Documentary tracks his development as a world-renowned athlete, beginning just before his turning pro in 1991. Archived footage shows a young Mat with an affinity for blasting big airs out of tall ramps, going higher above the deck of the ramp than anyone else was willing to go, or maybe even able to. Things don’t become really interesting — and forgive me for sounding a little more enthusiastic than I should, this film reminded me of how fascinating BMX really is — until his obsession with building larger vert ramps to obtain greater heights, an obsession that would result in him and his friends constructing a 24-foot-tall ramp just outside of his Oklahoma City home.
The ambition was less about getting into the record books as it was about embracing the spirit of his idol, legendary stuntman Evel Knievel. The repeated defiance of death necessarily made the pair synonymous. While some find enjoyment in riding bikes down quiet country lanes or around public parks or competing in races, Hoffman felt most comfortable being towed behind a motorcycle in order to rip off a 25-foot air above his home-made mega ramp. But it was less the motorcycle’s speed that got him there as it was his attitude — an intriguing mix of nonchalance and imperturbable confidence. Of course, the debate will never end over whether obstination is to be the undoing of any action sports competitor, and it’s completely understandable why some would (and have) shamed this guy for putting his family through such stress time and again. (His wife Jaci is as solid as a rock when she interviews, especially considering the sorts of things she openly talks about).
Hoffman’s comparable to an NFL player in terms of injuries sustained: he’s reportedly suffered over 100 concussions and has had 23 major surgeries. Some of the head injuries, apparently a weekly occurrence for him — well, in his prime . . . he has had the foresight to put his serious biking days behind him now — are not so concerning, but others, like the time he crashed and spent the better part of a year with amnesia or another incident where he was rendered unable to taste food for about seven years are enough to make any person shake their head in bewilderment. How and why would a person put themselves through anything like that?
That question is all too easy to ask if you’re not involved in the sport . . . and if you’re not ‘The Condor.’ Thankfully, The Birth of Big Air refuses to climb onto a soap box and start spouting out the pro’s and con’s of becoming a professional BMX rider. Instead Tremaine allows the disturbing facts (and the Hoffmans) speak for themselves. There’s little judgment, and crucially, little flinching away from some of the uglier realities of Hoffman’s ambition.
The physical sacrifices may factor in prominently, but they aren’t the sum total of the story Tremaine is telling. One of the most impressive highlights of a career filled with them is Hoffman’s ability to continue a career in a sport that hasn’t always been financially rewarding. When money and sponsorships dried up without warning in the early ’90s many professional riders were prompted to quit and find more reliable jobs. Hoffman, of course, wasn’t one of those riders. When BMX hit its recession, Hoffman started up his own biking company, which eventually led to free, public competitions in which he finally debuted his massive vert ramp. These events gradually reestablished how bikes would and could be ridden, and Hoffman’s company was largely to thank for the sport’s resuscitation, coupled with the advent of the X-Games (the Olympics of the action sports community) in 1995.
The story of Mat Hoffman is essentially the story of how BMX has become the industry it is today, and The Birth of Big Air can confirm. I don’t know when it was when I became aware of his name but it was sometime after I had transitioned from the bike and onto rollerblades, where I actually managed to avoid breaking too many bones. It was ironic that I had left one sport and started identifying with the culture and lifestyle of another (for reasons now unknown to me, as rollerblading has long been a dying industry), only to start finding myself obsessed with the picture of Mat far above the coping of that behemoth of a vert ramp. Mat lost in the sky and suspended in real time. Inspiring an entire generation of riders to dare to do the impossible.
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Recommendation: The Birth of Big Air plays to a fairly small audience but for anyone who has heard the name Mat Hoffman and is curious to learn a bit more about him, Jeff Tremaine’s documentary is a pretty great place to start. It might have gone into some more detail about the particularly stressful and turbulent period of the early ’90s as the sport died out, but then a much longer final cut would have been necessary. I personally wouldn’t have complained, but as it stands, there’s plenty to marvel at.
Running Time: 60 mins.
Quoted: “I’m thinking . . . I don’t know, what the hell am I thinking? Oh my god . . . is that really possible? Or am I just completely an idiot?”
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