Sneakerheadz

Shoe shrine.

Shoe shrine.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Jeff Staple, Elliott Curtis, Rob Dyrdek, Russ Bengtson, Mike Epps, Frank the Butcher, Hommyo Hidefumi, Ben Baller, Jeremy Guthrie, Andre “Dre” Lustina, DJ Clark Kent, Wale, Jon Buscemi, Futura, Matt Fontana, Jon Wexler, David Ortiz, DJ Skree, Samantha Ronson, Dazie Williams, Oliver Mak, Mike Jensen, Dean Point, Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez. Directed by David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge

Most of us use sneakers as footwear. We put them on to go work out, or do some walking, or to go to our local theme parks. We don’t really think of them much beyond their utilitarian function.

That’s not true for all of us. For some, sneakers are a personal statement of who they are. They are a symbol of status, of hipness, and of belonging. To an even smaller group of people, they become an obsession – not just items of status but things to own. While once upon a time people bought their Nikes, Adidas and New Balance sneakers  to wear, there are Sneakerheadz – the collector segment of society – who buy them to store and/or display without any intention of ever lacing them up.

This documentary explores the phenomenon which exploded onto the scene in the 1980s as sports, the hip-hop scene, movies and street culture in general began to collide and merge. Everyone wanted to wear the same shoes as Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony and Run-DMC. The latter even had a hit song about their footwear – “My Adidas” which of course is prominently featured on the soundtrack here. Soon, the manufacturers realized that the demand was high for limited editions and that they could charge a premium price. They also began using a variety of materials, including leather and suede in addition to the traditional canvas and rubber. They began hooking up with designers, athletes, musicians, artists and actors to design these shoes, which would sell out in minutes.

Collectors would buy shoes they could barely afford, and those that could built elaborate storage and displays for their shoes. Enterprising young people discovered that the shoes they bought for $300 on the day they came out would sell on e-Bay for $1500 (and more) to collectors who had missed out when the shoe sold out in hours.

At first, it was an obsession that involved going down to the stores, finding new stores and going out of town to hunt down special editions only released in other cities. Veteran Sneakerheadz speak of that era fondly, as it was a testament to their commitment that they would fly to Japan and buy shoes there, or to New York City for those non-jet set types. These days, ordering shoes can be done with the click of a link on your laptop and some bemoan that it takes the fun out of it and fills the ranks of Sneakerheadz with those who really haven’t earned it.

Still, plenty of shoes are on display here and some of them are really amazing, truly works of art. I was kind of surprised about this; in all fairness I’m one of those Luddites that wear shoes to cover my feet. I’m more apt to wear Crocs than sneakers and sneakers more than patent leather. But I understand the collector’s mentality. I collect ball caps myself, although I have probably around 40 or 50 rather than thousands, which is what some of the Sneakerheadz here have in their collection. As a psychologist specializing in hoarding muses, where is the line between collecting and obsessive psychosis?

And really, that’s what this movie is about. Yeah, the sneakers are cool and all, and some of the designs are really amazing. but this is about the collectors. We do get a more than cursory history of the sneaker phenomenon, as well as some insight into the cultural impact of them but the emphasis is on those who buy the sneakers and keep them without ever wearing them (well, most of them anyway – the reason collectors buy two pairs of each item is explained succinctly as “one to stock, one to rock”).

One thing that isn’t really explored is the way this is perceived. For the most part, the film’s tone is upbeat and affectionate but given the way that the sneaker culture essentially evolved from the young African-American male community and how that community is viewed by authority figures and the white community, sneakers are looked upon as more or less as the domain of street thugs, hip hop artists and NBA worshippers by a certain segment of our society, which is a reflection of how society views young African-American males in general. There’s a political aspect here that isn’t explored and it should have been. The truth is that this is no longer limited to urban culture in general; the obsession has spread globally with some of the more rabid collectors located in Japan and Europe.

This is a much better film than you might expect it to be. Granted this is a very niche subject, but it can be said that is true about most documentaries. The filmmakers infuse this with a great deal of energy and attitude which I found refreshing. The graphics that identify the interview subject look like the end of a shoebox, complete with the shoe size of the subject (I’m assuming). That tells me that the filmmakers don’t take themselves too seriously, as documentarians are sometimes wont to do.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious moments. One of the best and most heartbreaking sequences of the movie is an interview with Dazie Williams, whose son was murdered for the brand new Air Jordans he had just bought for himself and his son; given the resale value of unworn shoes to collectors, the motivation is pretty clear.

Nobody should have to die over a pair of shoes, but people do, over a thousand per year according to the movie. If so, that’s a sobering statistic and it is barely touched upon in the movie. That’s a subject that should have gotten a lot more time in the movie, as the willingness of collectors to pay exorbitant prices to complete their collection is at least a factor in the crime surrounding the new release of sneakers, which sometimes are accompanied by riots.

But enough about what the film isn’t. What the film is, is a fairly light but fascinating look at a subculture in our society that gets little or no notice but generates billions of dollars in revenue every year. Sneakerheadz certainly has their hearts in the right place, and the affection of the filmmakers for the subjects is obvious. One of the most important keys to making a good documentary is for the filmmakers to have an emotional connection to the subject; without it, the audience isn’t going to get one. I was pleasantly surprised that I developed affection and respect for those so devoted to their obsession. I wasn’t expecting to, and that’s always a icing on the cake when tackling a new movie. This one certainly is worth consuming, although you may be tempted to head on out and buy some of these shoes for yourselves afterwards. Maybe this should come with a warning label.

UPDATE 8/24/15: Sneakerheadz is now available on Vimeo on-demand. You can stream it here.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating subject. Graphics are fun. Hip hop energy.
REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunities. Sneaker overload.
FAMILY VALUES: Some salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Air Jordan was released for public purchase in 1985.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fresh Dressed
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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