- Text by Alex King
How much do you want to know the truth? Be honest. What if the truth comes in the way of a good story?
Some of the greatest stories humankind has ever told don’t have much more than a shred of truth to them: the fables, myths and legends which we have passed down through the generations.
So, ask yourself again, how much do you really want to know the truth?
Before visionary South African surf filmmaker Peter Hamblin met big wave surfer and fellow countryman Frank James Solomon, he thought he had a good idea of the man: a gambler, a womaniser and a warrior, but above all a dominating waterman, crisscrossing the globe in search of its biggest waves.
“I thought he had this massive sponsorship deal in place to afford this life of luxury or that he came from a very privileged family,” Peter explains to me over Skype from Laguna Beach, California.
The mythical existence of Frank James Solomon was already well-formed in Peter’s mind. However, in a drunken meeting at the premiere of Peter’s previous film, The Wright Side Of Wrong, that illusion was shattered.
“I was like, actually, no,” Frank explains down the phone to me from his car in South Africa. “I sleep on people’s couches, sell christmas trees and work wherever I go.”
“Frank really had nothing,” Peter says. “What I got out of that story was that he was an absolute hustler who had the sense of resilience that he was going to be a big wave surfer, no matter what. He took himself to America, worked in restaurants, did whatever… all this so he could then throw himself down twenty-foot waves. That blew my mind.”
Frank’s single-handed and self-funded journey to break into the top flight of the under-celebrated and underpaid world of big wave surfing is a story that deserves to be told – but that wasn’t the narrative that would dominate Let’s Be Frank – The Double Life of Frank James Solomon.
“It was all pretty much Pete’s perverted imagination and creativity,” Frank says.
Peter couldn’t let his mythical image of Franks’ life die. Let’s Be Frank is a disorientating tale that inflates the legendary figure of Frank – embellished in smoke-filled dive bar tales – to new heights. Of course there are grains of truth to be found, but only if you can decipher them.
Nodding its head in style and tone to Wes Anderson, under the steerage of an unreliable narrator (a superstar surfer cameo), the film tracks Frank on his journey chasing huge swells and, supposedly, attempts to uncover the truth behind the legend.
“I really wanted the film to follow the same path I have been doing the last couple of years: go to San Francisco, surf Mavericks, go to Hawaii, surf Jaws, go to Ireland to surf the west coast, then on to Mexico,” Frank tells me. “That’s what I’ve been doing for the past eight years and it’s the path which led me to where I am today.”
The film follows that faithfully enough, but whether the bumps along the road – the backroom brawl with gypsies in a one-horse-town on the Irish coast, a desert execution, frolics with heiresses in an English country mansion or paddling out alone for two kilometres into the shark-filled waters at Dungeons in Cape Town – went down exactly as the film portrays, is another matter entirely.
Shot inventively and unconventionally throughout, the sublime surf footage of Let’s Be Frank is wrapped up in a hypnotic blurring of the lines between fact and fiction that is most captivating the further it strays from the truth. As the opening credits begin to roll, make yourself comfortable, suspend disbelief and ask yourself once again: How much do you really want to know the truth?