What do you picture when you hear “Venice Beach”?
For me, it was always bronzed women in bikinis roller-blading along the promenade, muscle-men very publically pumping iron under the glare of the Californian sun. You know, pretty superficial stuff. If you share these perceptions then get ready to have them changed dramatically when you watch Kate Hickey’s debut feature documentary, Roller Dreams.
Hickey is no doubt aware of the preconceived ideas many people have about Venice Beach and she sets out to show us how the area was actually the birthplace of a pop culture phenomena. A phenomena that had significant racial and social motivations that inspired a number of Hollywood movies and had a profound impact on those involved.
In 1984, Venice Beach was the birthplace of roller dancing; a mix of disco, line-dancing and breakdancing on roller skates. At the height of its popularity it drew massive crowds and made local celebrities of the performers. Sadly just as the scene was flourishing, racial politics, money and urban gentrification conspired to “neutralise and marginalise” these talented dancers and their vibrant subculture.
Using a brilliant mix of present day interviews and home-video and news footage from the past, these halcyon days are easily evoked for us. The feel of the Venice Beach of that time, “the slum by the sea”, is palpable in the opening minutes and contextualised by the interviewees. As the only coastal area in LA with a large population of POC, young POC from the inner city would flock to the seaside community, often looking to avoid the turmoil of the gang culture which was prevalent where they lived.
You can’t help but respect the passion and joy clearly shared by all those involved
Under the guidance of the mythical leader of this movement, James Lightning (AKA Mad), whose presence is felt strongly even before he comes on screen, the roller dance craze and Disco Alley are born. Representing different things for the performers involved, from self-expression to a way to pick up women, this form of dance captivated the large audiences who would gather to watch, and in turn,captivated this viewer.
I didn’t fully understand the 'roller' scene - I haven’t even roller-skated since I was a child and I’ve never been much of a dancer, either. But I was nevertheless immersed in this story. You can’t help but respect the passion and joy clearly shared by all those involved in this movement, that shines through this documentary. I loved the nostalgic soundtrack and other than one or two moments of what felt like deliberately manipulative scoring, and a bit of a telegraphed finale, I found this a feel-good and fascinating insight into a time and culture I knew nothing about. Thanks to Hickey, when I hear “Venice Beach” now, the images that spring to mind will be a far cry from superficial.