The call of the ocean rings familiar to many of us living on the Gulf Coast. The beach bums, boaters, fishermen, divers—this region calls a siren’s sound to many a waterman. But it remains clear that surfer supreme Laird Hamilton, subject of Rory Kennedy’s new documentary Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, may feel a deeper attraction even than the ticket holders watching the film at the Sarasota Opera House on Friday night.
While Hamilton did not attend, viewers of the film left with a greater understanding of what drives the aging surf star into the water. Part sports documentary, part art flick, Kennedy retells the story of a child growing up in the reefs because the water offered warmer comfort than his home or school.
While the beauty of giant ocean waves surely drew Kennedy to Malibu and Hawaii to tell this story, the famed director knew that the personal story of Laird and the magnetic attraction dragging him to sea would layer the compelling narrative. “Certainly, it was about understanding Laird and his biological family and the role that played, how it influenced the rest of his life, what was broken about that and what didn’t work,” Kennedy told the audience. “That a theme that was going to drive this documentary on some level.”
The film in its start goes back in time to a young Laird acting up in school, then finding solace on a wood board. From there, the documentary moves through a history of Laird becoming the most admired—and occasionally hated—player in the field.
It’s Laird’s atypical personality that sets the movie apart from many biographies. He’s an athlete who dislikes competition and who would take a pass on a completion six miles from his home to experiment with a jet ski. He takes it somewhat personally when after playing a villain in surf movie North Shore kids in the street refuse to shake his hand.
Something else that separates him from most leaders in their given fields? The willingness to leave it all behind to find the next big thing. He gets into jet ski tow-in surfing years early, and pursues it even as most in the sport view the arrival of motored vehicles on the scene as sacrilege. He leaves the competition crowds to go with a core group of friends to surf a major contained wave in Hawaii exclusively, and gets angry as crowds follow him there.
Along the way, we see the ups and downs of his relationship with wife and pro volleyball plays Gabrielle Reece, his business separation from buddies who have stood by his side since his teens, and as expected, we see a few life-threatening, harrowing bits of footage of experience that lead everyone else involved to leave the water forever while Hamilton carries on.
And then there’s that final shot. At the Opening Night party for the Sarasota Film Festival, where this film kicked off the 10-day event, the talk of the evening was the extended shot that ends this two hour film. Hamilton tows out to deep sea to ride a foil board, his next pioneering move in a sport he continuously redefines, and seems to fly Silver Surfer style above the giant waves, coasting endlessly as crashing waves threaten a wipeout and the king of balance deftly carves away and stays afloat.
While much of this film contains archival footage, Kennedy and writer Mark Bailey (shown above, with SFF creative director Michael Dunaway) were in the helicopter as this piece of cinematic magic was captured. It may have been a record length of time spent on a wave, or Hamilton may have broken that record since and not bothered to check. The peace of the man on the board seemed somehow to dominate the threatening environment, and for a moment, every viewer could sense what keeps Hamilton in the water.