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YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY: Bustin' Down the Door Unhinges In Santa Barbara

| posted on July 22, 2010

During the winter of 2006/2007 Shaun Tomson was on the North Shore, working on a documentary. He had a crew around him a lot of the time, ate at Lele’s a lot and seemed to be having a good time. When anyone asked him what the doco was about, he said, “The seventies.”

At the Pipe Masters that winter, Shaun surfed with Cody Graham, Michael and Derek Ho, Tony Moniz and Dane Kealoha in a Legends Heat, before the final. After the heat, Shaun came into the media area up at the scaffolding to watch the final with John Philbin and Sam George. Shaun had just broken his nose out at Backdoor – the first time he had ever done that – but he was stoked. The final was Cory Lopez, Rob Machado, Andy Irons and Kelly Slater. Pipe was firing both ways, but the goofyfoots were soon a sideshow. This was the Pipe Masters where Kelly Slater and Andy Irons went after each other like naked Celts, and Andy came out on top. During the final, Shaun leaned up against the wood window, watching quietly and smiling to himself. He was jazzed he had done well in the Legends heat, amused he had broken his nose. But there was something else in that smile, as he watched two regularfoots dominate Pipe and put on one of the best finals in the history of surfing.

A little over a year later Shaun unveiled his documentary in Santa Barbara, at the Arlington theater, on a dark and stormy night. The weather was lousy, it was Sunday night, but that didn’t keep hundreds of people from showing up to get a first look at a documentary about three years in the middle 70s that changed surfing forever.

There were more people than tickets, the VIP list got all screwed up, Kelly Slater and the director’s mother barely got their tickets and another couple hundred people nearly busted down the theater doors to see Bustin’ Down the Door.

The crowd was thick by 6:00 and as it got close to 7:00, things were getting a little hectic. And then the faces arrived: The Five or Six Horsemen of the modern surf industry. The Godfathers of performance surfing: Shaun Tomson, Ian Cairns, Peter Townend, Michael Tomson, Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards. They looked good, they looked like rock stars on a reunion tour. They were rock stars. That was one of the points of the documentary.

This is a documentary about an era some call the Free Ride generation. This history of what came out of the southern ocean in the middle 1970s and what they did in Hawaii is gospel to surfers of a certain age. But 30 years later, a generation and a half of surfers have benefited from the performance and professional pioneering of these surfers, and Shaun and others thought this new generation should know the gory details – warts and all.

Bustin’ Down the Door details the blood, sweat and fears of Shaun the Prawn, MR, Mohammed Bugs, Kanga, PT and MT and their small group of merry Australian and South African surfers who took clues from Bowie and Ali and shook up the world with their aggressive surfing in Hawaiian waves – and their aggressive promotion in the surfing media.

On screen, speaking into the camera in Hawaii last winter, Shaun Tomson wonders about his own motivation, why he was so competitive and explains it had something to do with his father losing an arm in a vicious shark attack. Ernest Thompson was a top swimmer with Olympic potential, but the shark attack derailed that ambition. Shaun Tomson’s surfing ambition was considered suspect in South Africa as he was growing up and Tomson believes he traveled to Hawaii in 1974 with everything to prove.

Rabbit comes from a broken home, and he has an emotional moment when he describes having to go out and steal $20 to feed his mother and four sisters.

Mark Richards came from a solid home and a loving mum and pop, but he still had something to prove and his family gave him a year to do it.

The years of living dangerously began in 1974, when all those surfers first came to Hawaii, young, ambitious, unknown. There were only a few contests then and very little room for outsiders. All the surfers had their personal and practical reasons for doing well, and they all make it clear they were willing to die in pursuit of greatness.

Bustin’ Down the Door is narrated by the familiar voice of Edward Norton – following in the footsteps of Jan Michael Vincent and Sean Penn – but the real storytelling is done by the principals along with Reno Abellira, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Bernie Baker, Dan Merkel, Randy Rarick, Fred Hemmings, Eddie Rothman, Clyde Aikau, David Gilovich, Phil Jarratt and other guys who were around at the time, on either side of the conflict or right in the middle of it.