The Best Surfing Documentaries Ever Made

Our Top Surf Documentary Picks by Decade

Surfing has long been a pastime and part of the culture in beach communities. Films and documentaries have brought surfing to even the most landlocked audiences. From the late 1950's and to today, surf films remain popular, covering both the sport and culture of surfing. These are the best surfing documentaries.

The Endless Summer (1960's)

The Endless Summer was Bruce Brown’s 1960’s ode to the traveling surf spirit was the sport’s equivalent of the moon landing. Building on the work of Bud Browne and Greg Noll, Bruce developed a formula that intertwined light, groovy music with Brown’s quirky narration. Stunningly exotic scenes from around the world blend with athletic performances and unique personalities of the surfing culture. The film followed two surfers (Robert August and Mike Hynson) as they sojourned around the globe; catching waves, making friends, and above all else: having fun. The world responded, and the film is now revered as one of history’s great sport/culture documentary films. Brown, who was voted one of Surfer Magazine’s most influential surfers of all time, was later nominated for an Academy Award for his motorcycle film On Any Saturday.

Morning of the Earth and  Five Summer Stories (1970's)

Morning of the Earth came out in 1971 and introduced a new surf aesthetic with hippy vibes and classic music. The soundtrack went gold and the movie highlighted as much insane surfing in spots like Bali, Kirra, Angourie, and Hawaii as it did document an era. With no spoken narration to cloud the visual impact of surfing from Terry Fitzgerald and Nat Young among others, Morning of the Earth illuminated a counterculture in full plumage.

Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman’s last surf film might have been one the last great surf “movies.” There were lots of great films that came out during the 70’s, but Five Summer Stories carried that feeling that this was the epitome of surfing progression at the time. Each year, filmmakers updated the action and music for a state-of-the-art snapshot of the surf scene. I remember seeing this one in a Holiday Inn convention room with my brother when I was 8 years old. The place was packed, the air was smoky, and the vibe was electric. Early surf icons at the height of their powers (like Fitzgerald, Nuuhiva, Oberg, Hamilton, and much more throughout the film’s annual circuit) drew in the stoked crowds for years, but the days of the “surf movie” were numbered as theatrical events were soon replaced by VHS releases.

 Blazing Boards (1980’s)

As the surf movie was slowly moving from the big screen to the living room TV, Chris Bystrom put together a movie that highlighted the best of the best with a hyper-energized soundtrack from The Hoodoo Gurus and The Untouchables: Blazing Board. A young Tom Curren and Occy made brief appearances. Although departing from the familiarly humorous narration and observations made popular by Brown, the film still highlighted exotic surf travel but also gave a face to the budding professional tour. Professional surfing would become the meat and potatoes of 80’s surf movies. Industry packages like Quiksilver’s The Performers series and Astrodek’s Wave Warriors definitely delivered the action, but the messages were becoming more and more focused on advertising. One exception would have to be the Runman films. Check them out for pure insanity.

Bunyip Dreaming and the Green Iguana (1990's)

Entertaining surfing movies were still coming out, but they had a much different energy from the early era travel docs. However, two filmmakers who defined the 1990’s surf film genre, Jack McCoy and Sonny Miller, gave a nod back to the early days while conforming to the 90’s over-the-counter counterculture. For me, their films work together as one, highlighting a time when surfing was struggling with its own identity. Was it a culture, a lifestyle, a sport, a business? McCoy’s Bunyip Dreaming and the Green Iguana sported underground music and a departure from the blatant advertising ethos that had developed among 90’s surf movies. We all knew he was partial to the Billabong boys, but the backcountry feel gave the impression that we were one of the inner circle on a surf trip to the Aussie Outback.

Sonny Miller did something else. With The Search series, he took a full-on advertising vehicle and gave it a DIY adventure vibe with music from the surfers themselves and new waves ridden by the era’s resident soul surfer, Tommy Curren. You’d be hard pressed to find better surfing from any surfer ever.

A Broke Down Melody and Thicker than Water (2000's)

The Malloy brothers and mellow-goldie Jack Johnson kicked off an independent movement with A Broke Down Melody and Thicker than Water which led to a 16mm revolution of sorts. Enter Thomas Campbell’s Sprout which took it back to the roots with swinging retro bums grooving on smallish swells on all sorts of sundry equipment with the unusual usual suspects like Joel Tudor, Alex Knost, Dan Malloy, Rasta, and Rob Machado. Whether these films were the best of their era is debatable, but their place in the greater surf movie development is important as the role of the Internet has transformed the industry as today, every kid with a video camera and some editing software can make a classic clip in minutes.