(CNN)His upstart surf movie and its punk rock soundtrack crashed through the sport like a barrelling wave and changed the game forever.
Almost three decades later, the multi-billion-dollar global surf industry remains inextricably tied to a film that showcased new stars and inspired a new demographic of surf fans.
“I remember the first moment I put punk rock music to it and it just popped,” recalls Steele, whose film revitalized surfing as a sport. “The surfing seemed to accelerate and pop off the screen.”
For the surfers, appearing on Steele’s camera was a rite of passage, a reputational boost arguably greater than professional competition results. It also heralded the arrival of Kelly Slater, perhaps surfing’s most famous name.
“Being in the film pushed you,” says the Florida-born Slater, who won an unprecedented 11 world titles, starting the same year “Momentum” was released.
“I think the whole filming process definitely made me a better surfer.
“In some ways it was more important than the contests that we were doing. It was like a real badge of honour to be in the film.”
Australian-born American Rob Machado was another of “Momentum’s” breakthrough stars. He looks back on Steele’s creation as a “total game changer.”
The pace of the waves mirrored the loud and fast beat of the music, a far cry from the mellower tones of previous surf flicks. It sped up the surfers, conveying their art with a new level of drama. The rising stars — Slater, Machado, Taylor Knox, Shane Dorian, Kalani Robb, Benji Weatherly — became the inspiration for the next generation.
“Sometimes [Steele] wouldn’t square up the tripod and the horizons would be a little crooked, but it was all about the action and that was part of the feel of the film — for it to just be loose,” added Slater, whose brand was enhanced by his presence in Steele’s bold new world.
“There was no rigidity to it. He figured out a simple way to do something that nobody else was doing.”
Part of the movie’s fluidity came through its roots; Steele had initially set out to film the sport’s high-profile names, before changing tack to focus on younger protagonists, whom he knew on a personal level. It proved a masterstroke — a new way of watching surfing accompanying a new breed of surfers.
“I was too shy to introduce myself to [established pros],” explains Steele. “I was friends with these up-and-coming guys like Rob Machado and Kelly Slater, who nobody was filming. It was a natural fit.”
Such was the chemistry between filmmaker, protagonists and end product, nearly three decades on Machado still possesses a vivid recollection of his first viewing of “Momentum.”
“It was pretty intense,” he says of the private screening for the cast. “We all walked out of there and looked at each other.
“We all cried, we laughed. We went through the whole gamut of emotions. I think we didn’t realize what we were actually going through at that time. And I don’t think we realized what each one of us was going through.”
Perhaps the most telling reaction to the film came with the 2018 release of “Momentum Generation,” with Robert Redford as its executive producer.
If the immediate sequel to “Momentum” came with “Momentum 2” in 1993, Redford’s film gave credence to what Steele had set out to achieve. He had effectively shaped an era.
“Surfing brought my best friends,” the filmmaker reflects. “It’s brought me a career and it’s brought me all my happiness, so I’m super-grateful.”
Steele was selected among Surfer magazine’s “Top 25 Most Powerful People.” A member of the surf film industry among a plethora of athletes, it only serves to highlight his importance in the sport’s growth.
The film gave its sport exactly what its title promised. Almost 30 years later, its influence — on Slater, Machado, Steele and, indeed, on surfing — remains undiminished.
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