People who know the sport — really know it — will tell you that the best snowboarding movies are those that never let you get too comfortable.
That might explain how “Dear Rider” could very well end up in that category, even though nobody dropped out of a helicopter or plunged off a cliff to make this film.
Instead, the best storytelling in the documentary about snowboarding icon Jake Burton, who died in 2019 after a relapse of testicular cancer, comes from the nimble stitching together of decades of home movies and archival media interviews to paint a well-rounded portrait of the man who saw a sport in that undefined slab of fiberglass and forever changed life on the mountain.
Some might argue the wounds from Burton’s death are too fresh to allow for an unflinching narrative about a man whose life and influence on the sport he created are detailed in this 90-minute film, which debuts on HBO on Nov. 9.
But in large part because Burton had been plotting out the movie of his life story well before his death, and knew exactly where he wanted to go with it, much of the fluff that might have accompanied such a project so soon after his passing never makes the cut. A lot of the hard truth of what it took to build a snowboarding empire, then leave it behind too soon, comes to light.
What results is a movie that is, no doubt, an homage to Burton. But it also serves as a history lesson about a pastime that became a sport in the late 1970s when Burton quit his Wall Street job to produce snowboards in his garage in Vermont. It’s a lesson that does not shirk from the uncomfortable realities of his undertaking: Yes, he built it for fun, freedom and who-gives-a-crap rebellion, but no billion-dollar industry sprouts up purely on good vibes and bro hugs.
Some of the most enlightening moments revolve around the sport’s first superstar, Craig Kelly, and his role in the business side’s first major rivalry, between Burton and another snowboard maker, Tom Sims.
It includes backbiting and lawsuits, while also touching on Burton’s potentially career-killing miscalculations at the sport’s outset. The most notable involves prickly issues surrounding the patent for the snowboard that turned Burton, both the man and the company, into something of a pariah within the sport they created. The chapter ends with Kelly’s untimely death in an avalanche in 2003.
It is instructive, not always easy to watch. And while Sims, who died in 2012, would certainly have had a different take on many of these events, the fact this unvarnished portrayal of the main subject makes it into the movie at all is a testament to what Burton, his wife, Donna, and his son, George, were trying to do with this project.
“He was a very resilient man, but the more we could honestly show what his demons were, what his struggles were, and then show how he overcame them, that was always our focus,” said director Fernando Villena, who met several times with Burton before being chosen for the project.
The documentary shows Burton growing as a man while his snowboard becomes both a sport and an industry. He accepts the Olympics and marvels that his invention helped produce a champion such as Shaun White, whose two Rolling Stone magazine covers essentially cemented the sport’s acceptance into the mainstream. Those triumphs also lock in the reality that snowboarding will never return to the days of hand-dug halfpipes and using the legs from overturned park benches as makeshift starting gates.
Being OK with that allowed Burton, and his company, to overcome their rough beginnings and blossom into what they became as the upstart ’80s became the 2010s.
Lest anyone get too comfortable, the last 25 minutes of this movie are mostly sad but partly uplifting. Dozens of family photos and film clips follow Burton as he overcomes cancer, then a paralyzing autoimmune disease, then another bout with cancer that takes him away just as the snow starts falling in the late fall of 2019.
“We worked very consciously not to make this too sad, because Jake wasn’t a sad guy,” said his wife, Donna Carpenter. “But it had this certain rawness that maybe it wouldn’t have had” had the movie been completed while Burton was still alive.
For those new (two decades or less) to the snowboarding scene, the old snapshots and film clips of Burton — sometimes sneering, always bristling, never afraid to challenge the snobby ski suits in America and across Europe — are a stark reminder of how much work it took to elbow out room for himself and his baggy-panted diehards on the mountain.
Years passed and Burton Snowboards, always privately owned, branched out and became a behemoth that many in the industry thought was too big. The movie doesn’t flinch from this topic, either.
An interview with a Burton distributor, Andres Erlandsen, about the company’s largesse taps into the main undercurrent of this film — one that’s particularly poignant when viewed through the lens of Burton’s recent death.
“One day I asked him, ‘Have you ever thought about selling Burton?’” Erlandsen said. “And he told me: ‘Anyone who owns Burton Snowboards has to love snowboarding more than me. And I don’t know anyone yet.’”
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