Benji Weatherley chats about the recently released ‘Momentum Generation’ documentary.
The new documentary ‘Momentum Generation’ is a brilliant, honest and emotional exploration of a generation that changed surfing. Tracks talks to Benji Weatherley about the film, his pivotal role and why Kelly Slater is, and isn’t, an asshole.
The night before the world premiere of the ‘Momentum Generation’ at the New York Tribeca Film Festival the film’s directors Michael and Jeff Zimbalist contacted Benji Weatherley.
“They wanted a private screening as they said it might be too intense for us to watch in front of strangers,” Weatherley tells Tracks. “I said, “How intense can it be? It’s a friggin’ surf documentary.’ Fast forward to me and Dorian sitting in the theatre, half way through the movie holding hands and crying. We were in bits.”
The original ‘Momentum’ movie was released in 1992 as a 35-minute VHS tape. Taylor Steele’s mix of low-fi footage mashed with high energy Californian pop-punk and the soon to be era-defining surfing of teenagers Slater, Dorian, Machado, Knox, Robb, Williams et all, was a game changer for surf movies.
Yet ‘Momentum’ and the slew of templated follow-ups that Steele released over the next decade didn’t provide any emotional heft or personal insights. They may have chronicled Kelly Slater and the crew’s high performance surfing as they redefined the sport in their twenties, but offered little when it came to explaining what made Kelly tick. The new documentary however delves into the difficult backgrounds that helped form their bond, the competitive rivalries that almost destroyed them and the crucial role Todd Chesser, and his death, played in their lives.
“I thought the film would probably be about Slater being the best surfer of all time and his all round awesomeness, but he comes across as an asshole,” laughs Weatherley. “It’s perfect because it’s real. 99 per cent of that movie is true.”
Slater, like Kalani Robb, Shane Dorian, Taylor Knox, and Weatherley himself all had at best, absent, and at worst abusive fathers. The film opens with the surfers being brutally honest about those relationships and the largely negative impact they have had on their lives.
“Slater is the best surfer of all time, because of the human that he is,” says Weatherley. “He’s a true, honest, loving creature and he’s flawed because of his abusive dad and heavy family dynamic, but deep down he wants to love people and take care of them.”
Weatherley’s role in the ‘Momentum Generation’ is crucial. His mum rented what is now the Volcom House at Pipe, between 1986 to 1996. She and Benji operated an open door policy for the Momentum crew, plus dozens of others. For many who had troubled family backgrounds, that house became a sanctuary and safe haven. Weatherley didn’t have the competitive drive or raw talent of Slater, Dorian and Machado, but his eternal optimism and constantly bubbling humour were crucial in the group’s dynamic. The role of that house and its effect on surfing cannot be underestimated.
“We solved a riddle in terms of camaraderie that got us through some heavy shit,” says Weatherley. “It’s almost like soldiers at war and the bond they develop. My house at Pipeline was like the impact zone for every great and tragic moment for surfing at that time. We felt we had to make something of ourselves, because you could feel the pressure building as we were running out of time to get out of the lives we’d been handed.”
One of the crucial figures at the house was Todd Chesser. A few years older he was already a legendary big-wave surfer and became a mentor, father figure, hero and moral compass to the Momentum generation.
“Every day you’d go to Benji’s house and Todd was there,” Rob Machado tells Tracks. “And if it was giant, he’d be going surfing. He’d say ‘Get your biggest board, lets go’ and there was no option. He didn’t surf for the cameras or for the competition, which is all we did. He tested us and showed us what was really important in life.”
“This was before jet skis and life vests, it was raw and gnarly,” says Weatherley. “Chesser would take me out to Himalayas. And if you lost your board you were on your own. There’d always be friends in hospital and guys that had nearly drowned and you were terrified all the time. It was traumatic, but the bond that developed as we surfed those crazy waves was so strong and has survived all these years.”
In 1997 however, Chesser died surfing Outside Alligators aged 29. The film artfully portrays the deep ramifications of that tragedy. Without their moral compass the Momentum crew dispersed in different directions. Slater and Machado’s competitive enmity as they tussled for a World Title is chronicled through the prism of the infamous high-five incident at Pipe. “He was being a dick,” Machado says matter-of-factly of his mate and nemesis, in the film.
We see footage of Kalani Robb sponsorless and working a 9 to 5 job in the marketing department of a bio-tech company. Taylor Knox takes an uptight decade to get his head around the fact that he’ll never win a World Title. Ross Williams suffers depression after retiring and Weatherley undergoes treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Slater, who accompanied Weatherley through his whole rehab stint, is also open and honest about his own struggles.
This is one of the film’s great strengths. While it captures an incredible decade that changed surfing, it is the refreshing sight of men being honest and open about their emotions that might deliver the most crucial lesson of all.
“For me one of the biggest things I took from the movie was Kelly Slater’s honesty. He’s not ashamed of who he is and that’s why he is so successful,” says Weatherley. “Like he’s the best surfer that ever lived, but he struggles to be happy just like us. We didn’t talk about our feelings after Todd died and we were tight, so imagine those guys out their on their own. Hopefully this will open up a new conversation. It sure has with all of us. And because of it we’re stronger friends than ever.”
Above: Members of The Momentum gang back together. Left to Right: Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, Kelly Slater, Benji Weatherley and Taylor Steele Kelly Slater backside pop when his boards were ultra-thin and his hair was long. Inset: Goofy duo, Rob Machado and Kalani Robb.