A new documentary on the late snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton is more than a glossy retrospective of his life.
It’s a raw, unflinching examination of the trials and tribulations Burton went through over a four-decade career in which he shaped both the snowboard and the the billion-dollar industry that forever changed life on the mountain.
The movie “Dear Rider” premieres on HBO on Nov. 9.
Before Burton died in 2019 after a relapse of cancer, he had been approached about a movie of his life story and had started planning to make it. His wife, Donna, let the project move forward after Burton’s death. One of her instructions to director Fernando Villena was that there was no subject that would be out of bounds.
What results is a movie that is, no doubt, an homage to Burton. But it also serves as a history lesson about a pastime that became a sport in the late 1970s when Burton quit his Wall Street job to produce snowboards in his garage in Vermont. It’s a lesson that does not shirk from the uncomfortable realities of his undertaking: Yes, he built it for fun, freedom and who-gives-a-crap rebellion, but no billion-dollar industry sprouts up purely on good vibes and bro hugs.
The documentary shows Burton growing as a man while his snowboard becomes both a sport and an industry. He accepts the Olympics and marvels that his invention helped produce a champion such as Shaun White, whose two Rolling Stone magazine covers essentially cemented the sport’s acceptance into the mainstream. Those triumphs also lock in the reality that snowboarding will never return to the days of hand-dug halfpipes and using the legs from overturned park benches as makeshift starting gates.
Being OK with that allowed Burton, and his company, to overcome their rough beginnings and blossom into what they became as the upstart ’80s became the 2010s.
Lest anyone get too comfortable, the last 25 minutes of this movie are mostly sad but partly uplifting. Dozens of family photos and film clips follow Burton as he overcomes cancer, then a paralyzing autoimmune disease, then another bout with cancer that takes him away just as the snow starts falling in the late fall of 2019.
“We worked very consciously not to make this too sad, because Jake wasn’t a sad guy,” said his wife, Donna Carpenter. “But it had this certain rawness that maybe it wouldn’t have had” had the movie been completed while Burton was still alive.