75 %

Some lucky bastards grow up in Colorado or California or Vancouver. These select few get to take the adventure sports playgrounds that are their backyards for granted and can spend their teenage years skiing, mountain biking, surfing and exploring the bounteous natural beauty quite easily. Others of us—born with the same dauntless spirit and with the same snowboarding muscles—are instead consigned to grow up in the Ohio River valley, multiple time zones from a Fourteener. For those in such mountain-bereft terrain, high-altitude athletic pursuits can only be enjoyed vicariously, through film, television and print media.

That is where Warren Miller comes in. While Miller did not invent the ski documentary, he perfected, popularized and became synonymous with it. His films have been so beloved and developed such a devoted following that most people in the ski industry give Miller much of the credit for the ‘60s and ‘70s ski boom that swept the United States. People saw his films, where sexy men and women did incredibly athletic stunts in absolutely gorgeous mountains and then retired for debauched evenings in far-flung ski towns. After seeing this, thousands of US-Americans understandably took up skiing. It is not an exaggeration to credit Miller and his films with spring-boarding events such ESPN’s Winter X-Games and the introduction of both freestyle skiing and snowboarding into the Olympics. Adventure sports documentaries, such as recent Oscar winner Free Solo, also owe him a fundamental debt.

This is largely the story told by Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story, which traces the biography of Miller from coastal Californian teenager to his meager camping trailer in the mountains, where he got the idea to bum $400 from a few friends and launch one of the most iconic sports-cinematic universes in the world. While the film is not afraid to plumb the depths of Miller’s tumultuous personal life, it is at its core a paean to a man who deserves such celebration.

The documentary is a straightforward affair, proceeding chronologically from Miller’s childhood to the pinnacle of his career, with all of the various personal and professional ups and downs along the way. It credits him with coining the idea of the ski bum and re-appropriating it as something positive. He just wanted to spend as much time skiing as he could and he discovered that he was both an immensely talented skier and a very good storyteller, which led him down the path of filmmaking. He was also a tireless workaholic, which did wonders for his cinematic output but poisoned his relationship with his children and his second wife.

Littered throughout Ski Bum are clips from Miller’s prolific career, as well as interviews with several of the professional skiers he most often used in his filmmaking. There are also interviews with his children, with his third (and final) wife and with Miller himself, not too long before his death in January 2018. Like Miller and his films, Ski Bum is energetic, often funny and centered on the mountains and those who utilize their snow-draped shoulders for sporting pleasure. What the film lacks in narrative panache it more than makes up for with its ample charm and excellent pacing.

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