The universe’s best athletes are often our ciphers – the men and women with whom we run the courts, make the shots and pummel opponents. But despite their ubiquity on screens and shelves, we often know little about their daily adventures. That gap was director Adam Bhala Lough’s logic for making The Motivation, which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary tracks eight of the world’s best skateboarders – Sean Malto, Nyjah Huston, Paul Rodriquez, Ryan Sheckler, Chris Cole, Chaz Ortiz, Bastien Salabanzi, and Luan Oliveira – as they prepare for the Street League Championship, skateboarding’s first pro-series world tour and brainchild of pro Rob Dyrdek.
Lough, known for the graffiti doc Bomb the System, and the unreleased but heavily bootlegged Lil Wayne doc The Carter, stumbled on Street League while watching ESPN. “I’ve seen other skateboarding competitions, more traditional competitions like the X-games, which are more of a free-for-all,” Lough said. “Street League was just totally unique and different. It was some of the best skaters in the world in an arena on a brand new course that had been constructed just for the competition and they were they were jumping down ten stairs and grinding on rails and being judged instantaneously by a panel of judges.”
But as much as Lough could watch these athletes perform, he wanted to know what happened off stage. ”These larger than life characters, real athletes, who we see often on TV just competing, we see them in the moment of doing what they do best. But we never see what goes on behind the scenes,” Lough said. “I mean you have the traditional skate videos which are dope, but I mean hardly are those guys ever even talking – like they never even talk, it’s just trick after trick after trick.”
The resulting film trails the athletes, cinema verité-style, as they train, pay electric bills, go to the doctor and hang with their mothers. Most interestingly, it highlights their pressures and catalysts for entering into competition. (A sample: Nyjah Huston was turned into a skateboarding machine at age 4 by a controlling father. Paul Rodriguez really just wants to buy a house for his daughter, Heaven. And Ryan Sheckler is afraid of being seen as washed up.) Even Lil Wayne, a major Street League fan, makes a brief cameo. Though no action shots of him make the cut here, he’s a regular skating partner for Paul Rodriguez, Nyjah Huston and Sean Molto. (Lough reports that Wayne is not particularly good but will call up the professionals and say, “Hey can I skate with you? I’m a huge fan.”)
While the sport might have celebrity endorsement, it’s still waiting for the acceptance of mainstream sports, specifically the Olympic committee. But Lough thinks Street League could make that happen. “What Rob Dyrdek is doing with the large scope and scale plus the money, the more they continue to grow, the more middle America is going to start seeing them as massive superstars on the level of a LeBron or a Kobe.”