Film Review: Sneakerheadz

A documentary about sneaker collecting that favors superficial celebration over analysis.
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Because in today’s documentary field, even the most obscure subcultures must inevitably receive their own nonfiction story, Sneakerheadz dives into the world of obsessive sneaker collecting, a hobby embraced by millions and promoted by corporate shoe giants who exploit their customers’ rabid fandom in as many creative ways as possible. No such inventiveness can be found in David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge’s film, however, which assumes a wholly superficial perspective on its topic as it talks to a number of high-profile American and Japanese designers and collectors, details the phenomenon’s roots in ’80s hip-hop culture, and discusses how the Internet–and canny marketing strategies–have helped fuel its still-burgeoning growth.

Among the many talking heads on display are sneaker design luminaries Frank the Butcher and Jeff Staple, the latter of whom created, in 2005, a limited-edition Nike “NYC Pigeon Dunk” that was so highly coveted by sneakerheadz, it led to a riot in New York City that wound up becoming New York Post front-page news. The NYC Pigeon Dunk bedlam was the tipping point for the sneaker-collecting movement, as it ushered in an era marked by companies like Nike, Reebok and Asics releasing inventively designed shoes–often made in collaboration with other music stars, artists or brands–in extremely limited quantities, the better to stoke interest. That, in turn, gave birth to a flourishing online resale market, where sneakers that retail for $70 now go for tens of thousands of dollars on sites like eBay.

The fact that sneaker fanatics are being played by the sneaker companies they love–via an endless stream of “special” and “limited” sneaker lines designed to create an urgent need to purchase–isn’t lost on the many collectors documented in Sneakerheadz. Yet while its interviewees, some of whom boast collections in the thousands that they store in warehouses and personal vaults, confess to being obsessed to an almost ludicrous degree, there’s little critical analysis offered up by Friendly and Partridge’s portrait. The film occasionally admits that the subculture is a runaway train driven by addictive behavior, but it then does little more than shrug its shoulders at this fact before getting back to marveling at rows and rows of rare Air Jordans.

While Sneakerheadz makes a valid case for modern sneakers as an artistic fashion statement and throwback sneakers as powerful nostalgic reminders of one’s youth, the way in which sneakerheadz build shrines to their collections–many of which are left, unworn, in original packaging in order to maintain their peak value–more than faintly recalls the action-figure mania of Steve Carell’s character from The 40-Year-Old Virgin. More off-putting still is simply the fact that the film is ultimately content to be merely a survey, rather than an in-depth investigation, of this movement, so any questions about the sanity or maturity of such collecting habits, or what they might say about both individual desires (for status, for wealth) and corporate manipulation of consumers, are only cursorily addressed. Like its subjects, it’s a documentary that prizes celebratory fetishism above all else.

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