Surf Films That Fuelled Our Wanderlust

Matt Rott

by on

Updated 30d ago

For surfers under the age of 18, a surf video or DVD is practically a foreign concept. When digital media and social platforms rose to prominence a decade ago, the surf film effectively died—and with it, a foundational part of what had been our culture all but disappeared.

In the space of a few months, an industry that had been dominated by high-budget, big-name, independent surf videos was replaced by a new generation of branded film packages and online shorts that were released, digested, and forgotten in the space of a week.

Today, Insta-edits saturate the surf media, while actual full-length surf films are little more than nostalgic oddities that remind us of another time—a time that disappeared less than a generation ago.

But despite the fact that our media consumption habits have become little more than digital Ritalin, the influence of full-length surf films still remains. Most of the surfing we watch may happen on social media, but there are still multiple generations of surfers in the lineup who have stacks of VHS cassettes in their basements, or who used to flock to school auditoriums for screenings of the latest offerings from Bruce Brown or Jack McCoy. For these aging wave riders, the surf film represented the heart of our communal experience—the perfect moving complement to surf mags and surf shop banter.

There have been thousands of surf films produced over the past 50 years—many good, a few great, and all entertaining in their own way. But a few managed to shift our culture noticeably, changing not only how we viewed surf media, but also how and where we surfed. Surf films were, at their core, a call for us to break out of our comfort zones and go explore new worlds—whether that meant new countries and waves, or simply new places in our surfing. Here are six films that inspired us to look farther afield and expand our horizons.

The Endless Summer

The original surf/travel film, The Endless Summer took the fledgling surf exploration fad and made it into a global phenomenon. Bruce Brown’s unparalleled opus took viewers all over the world, tagging along as Mike Hynson and Robert August lived the surf magazine dream in 16mm film format.

In the course of an hour, Bruce’s film took surfing and turned it on its head. No longer was it okay to surf at home and master your local break. Suddenly, if you weren’t traveling for waves, you were falling behind. Five decades later, the surf trip has become an integral part of our lifestyle, but when Brown released The Endless Summer, it was still little more than an idea.

Just as importantly, The Endless Summer was one of the few surf movies that was as successful in Hollywood as it was with then-fledgling surf population, effectively mainstreaming the surf lifestyle without sacrificing authenticity. Despite the many attempts that Hollywood has made since, one could argue that Bruce Brown was the only person to every accomplish that.

Morning of the Earth

Alby Falzon’s masterpiece mattered for a number of reasons. For one, it effectively portrayed one of our most colourful generations. While the rest of the world was protesting Vietnam, chasing Woodstock, and discovering free love, surfers were dropping in and tuning out—taking the hippie culture and reshaping it to fit our ocean obsession.

Morning of the Earth romanticised the pastoral landscape of Australia’s heartland, camping out in sheds in central New South Wales, where boards were being reinvented and surfing was being turned on its head.

But this film also took viewers deeper, down the mind-bending rabbit hole that was Bali in the early 1970s. While Indonesia has gone on to become our southern hemisphere mecca, when MOTE was released, Uluwatu was the newest discovery in surfing.

The idea that tropical reef perfection existed somewhere other than Hawaii—somewhere cheap and peaceful and full of friendly locals—was nearly as culture-shifting as the travel ethic preached in The Endless Summer. Add in the fact that the best surfers in the world were revolutionising progressive surfing and legitimising the Shortboard Revolution right there in front of Alby’s camera, and you have one of the most important surf films of all time.

Momentum

When an entire generation is named after a film, you know it was an influential one. In the early to mid-’90s, Taylor Steele was the high priest of progressive surfing. He didn’t just have his fingers on our culture’s pulse—he was the guy who dictated what that pulse looked like. Taylor’s films represented the apex of high-performance surfing, and simply being featured in one meant that you had made it. Scoring the final section? Forget about it. If you pulled that off, you were surfing better than anyone else alive.

Momentum was the quintessential Taylor Steele film, and effectively introduced the world to the “New School” generation. The surfers featured within—Slater, Machado, Williams, Dorian, Knox, Robb, Malloy, and all of their contemporaries—would go on to dominate surfing for the next decade and a half.

And even today, more than 25 years later, they are still some of the most influential names in our sport. Meanwhile, Taylor Steele is widely acknowledged to be one of surfing’s most prolific and appreciated filmmakers, and has exposed us to practically every surfable country on the planet.

September Sessions

Ask anyone over the age of 30 to name their favourite surf films, and odds are September Sessions will make the list. This was the return to an artistic focus that surf cinematography needed. While Taylor Steele’s punk rock aesthetic had dominated surfing for the past decade, a maturing generation was ready for something a little mellower and a lot more visually pleasing—without sacrificing the progressive surfing, of course.

September Sessions did all that and more. Less than 30 minutes long, but jam packed with the type of surfing that can only come from sending the stars of the then-peaking Momentum generation on a boat trip to the Mentawais, September Sessions was one of those perfect surf films that ends before you tire of it, and played on repeat for years at a time.

Seamlessly blending Bruce Brown’s focus on travel, Albee Falzon’s 16mm Indonesian fantasy, and the talent of Taylor Steele’s athletes, September Sessions ushered in not only a new aesthetic in surfing, but also the career of filmmaker/musician Jack Johnson, who would go on to become the most famous surfer since Duke Kahanamoku.

Second Thoughts

In an era that had become quickly saturated with slick, high-quality, charter-based surf films, Second Thoughts was a wake up call—both a breath of fresh air and a slap in the face all at the same time. This was essentially a home movie portraying the ultimate feral mission—as different as you could get from the ubiquitous Mentawais charter trip.

While everyone else was sipping Bingtangs in air-conditioned cabins between sessions at marquee surf breaks, Timmy Turner, Travis Potter, and Brett Shwartz were slaughtering and cooking goats, drinking muddy water, sleeping in their own filth, and surfing two of the scariest waves on the planet—completely alone, with no safety net, no escape route, and nothing but full suits and booties to keep them from dying on what is essentially dry reef.

The fact that they didn’t at least get severely injured while surfing One Palm and Apocalypse is only slightly less impressive than the fact that they didn’t lose their minds in the process. While Second Thoughts might not be the flashiest film on this list, it is without question the most hardcore—and in a generation of hipsters that is getting softer by the day, that counts for a lot.

View From a Blue Moon

Only a few years old, John John Florence’s second signature film was never intended to be printed on DVDs or sold on VHS. It was a digital offering from the beginning, the ultimate expression of surfing’s new social media. But at the same time, it had many of the elements of the old-school surf film, including half a dozen exotic locations, months of hype and expectation, unparalleled attention to detail and aesthetic, and the most progressive surfing of its time. It was also screened old-school style, projected on walls and makeshift movie screens around the world.

In many ways, View From a Blue Moon was a bridge between the previous generation of classic surf films and the new era of instant online edits—except that the bridge in question cost more to produce than most of the previous surf films put together. The first surf film shot in 4K (and often higher) resolution, VFABM featured some of the highest-quality slow motion footage we’d ever seen, and was as highly anticipated as any piece of surf media in the past decade.

When the wait was over and the film finally dropped, there were a handful of surprises, and a whole lot that wasn’t surprising at all. View From a Blue Moon may have been heavy with artistic lifestyle imagery (not that we are complaining) and dubbed over with cheesy narration from a Hollywood actor, but it also featured cutting-edge freesurfing shot during one of the most dominant competitive streaks our sport has ever seen.

Between this film and his two world titles, John John effectively cemented himself as the ultimate competitive and free surfer of his generation—something that hadn’t been seen since Kelly Slater in Black and White.

Cover shot, that Indo spot we all know and love by Trevor Murphy


Matt Rott

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