Any fan of iconic surf films will know the footage of rising Australian icon Michael Peterson in the movie, “Morning of the Earth.” Shot during the cyclone season of 1970 in Kirra, Queensland, the breakout performance of “MP” has been a point of obsession for almost 40 years; in it, he is supremely confident, handsome, animated, clearly a gifted athlete who, like the warriors in the Homeric epics, has the “shine” on him and is leading the field in a new direction.It was an auspicious debut that not only foretold MP’s total domination of Australian surfing from 1972 to the 1977 Burleigh Heads contest that was the birth of the modern competitive surf tour – but also gave a glimpse of his strange and soon-to-be legendary intensity. That intensity gave way to bizarre and antisocial behavior, like hiding in the bushes after winning the 1975 Bells Beach contest and letting Ian Cairns accept his prize check for him.
That intensity that would also later find its root and bloom into uncontrolled paranoid schizophrenia, a brooding life as a recluse, drug use, a chaotic car chase to prison, and finally a life of relative obscurity. In his wake, MP left one of the strangest legacies of any modern sports champion.
A moving new film about MP, “Searching for Michael Peterson,” is making its debut tour and is in Southern California this week. Because Peterson rarely gave interviews, and when he did they were strangely brusque, Australian filmmaker Jolyon Hoff rightly focuses the piece on outstanding footage from the contests of the era and interviews with many of MP’s Australian contemporaries.