The issue opens with yesterday morning's review of the film by a film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and concludes with my own, in depth review.
BEYOND THE MAT: Documentary on professional wrestling. Directed by Barry W. Blaustein. (R. 92 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)
Taking the excited tone of a wide-eyed fan, documentarian Barry W. Blaustein noses around the freaky backstage world of professional wrestling in his fascinating, funny yet curiously depressing documentary "Beyond the Mat," opening today at the AMC 1000 Van Ness and other Bay Area theaters.
The filmmaker is a former "Saturday Night Live" writer. In a voice- over, he declares flat out that "I have been a wrestling fan my whole life," and that his film marks the point at which "I am finally coming out of the wrestling closet."
It seems inevitable that once Blaustein went backstage at the freak show that has hoodwinked some into believing it is sport, he would meet alarming people and situations.
To Blaustein's credit, this die- hard fan of the shrill, glitzy and over-the-top showbiz imperatives of professional wrestling looks unflinchingly at that dark side -- it's what makes his film worth seeing.
But "Beyond the Mat" is crazily entertaining, too. After all, its grunting, growling, violent and absurdist participants have turned the World Wrestling Federation into a major television entertainment empire. They may be cheesy, but they're stars. Former star Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura makes a brief appearance, and the film focuses on some of wrestling's other top figures who speak candidly about the hoops they jump through to keep audiences shrieking.
The film catches the cheap thrills, phony posturing, slick packaging and savvy show-business manipulations. It even looks at the Pacific Coast Sports gym in Hayward where pro wrestling wannabes study moves and develop ring personalities. They're as serious as anyone at a ballet school. One such wannabe, able to vomit on cue, calls himself "Puke" -- he's shown auditioning big-league contract.
"Beyond the Mat" is at its best, though, as a skillful exposition of the pain of pro wrestling, and the high price participants pay in terms of physical and ego injuries.
The focus is on wrestler Mankind (Mick Foley), Terry Funk and a has- been named Jake "the Snake" Roberts, whose act incorporates reptiles. The Rock and Chyna are other stars who appear.
Mankind, a bear of a man costumed like the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" killer in the ring, is given the most sympathetic treatment. Blaustein trains his camera on his wife and two young children as they squirm while Mankind is brutalized. After the match, the wrestler feels guilty about traumatizing his children.
Less cheerful is the look at Roberts fighting demons of drug abuse as a WWF outcast working Nebraska towns with his python act. In a painful sequence, he attempts a reunion with his daughter, in her 20s, who is seething with anger over his having deserted her.
Copyright 2000 - San Francisco Chronicle
I attended the noon matinee at my local UA multiplex theater in Union City, CA (about 2 miles South of my home in Hayward). There were maybe 80 people in a theater that would hold about 350. There was a smattering of nervous laughter in the house as the movie opened with the director, Barry Blaustein, talking about his own early attraction to wrestling on TV and his lifelong career as an obsessed fan. I figured that laughter signalled two possible things:
The film switches gears almost immediately, taking us inside the WWF headquarters in Stamford, Connecticutt where Vince McMahon says it isn't about sport as far as he is concerned: "We make movies" he says. Blaustein correctly states in his voice-over that what it really is about is spectacle.
During this sequence we are present at the birth of the wrestling character "Puke". Darren Drozdov, a former football player, is auditioning for a spot in the federation. His gimmick, as we all know, had to do with the fact that he could make himself vomit on cue. Vince suggested the name "Puke" to Drozdov and then urged him to demonstrate his unique talent by upchucking into a convenient waste basket placed on his desk ("...try not to get it on the other stuff on my table, okay?") Droz obliges and gets a contract. Later we eavesdrop on a phone conversation as he calls his mother saying, "Mom, you're going to be so proud of me...yeah they're going to call me 'Puke'..." Later, at the end of the film it is noted that the "Puke" character didn't take off but that Droz did become a regular in the WWF. IT also mentions that two weeks after the completion of filming, Droz suffered an injury which left him paralyzed from the neck down and is now in therapy with the hope of someday again being able to walk...
The scene then shifted to my own backyard, Hayward, California, where a guy I know named Roland Alexander runs a small independent wrestling promotion and training school called All Pro Wrestling. This segment focuses on two of APW's brightest stars, Mike Modest and Tony Jones, who get the chance to tryout during a dark match before a RAW broadcast. Jim Ross and Jim Cornette watch the entire match, along with Vince McMahon who sees some of it. Cornette and Ross are impressed by what they see, and give the two aspiring wrestlers some tips for improvement afterward. Neither was ever called back by the WWF.
Next the film takes us to Amarillo, Texas where Terry Funk is profiled. In one scene we get to see part of his daughter's wedding, observing the tenderness that this brutal wrestler can display outside the ring. His family all agree that he should have stopped wrestling at least five years ago but they know that it is what he wants to do so they support him. The first part of this segment focuses on Funk's experience with ECW, where he became the World Champion for a short time and basically put the outlaw promotion on the wrestling map during their first PPV show.
It is during this examination of Terry Funk that we first encounter Funk's friend Mick Foley and the emphasis switches to him. We meet his dad and his wife Nicole and children, Noel and Dewey. We get a brief hint of the horrors to come before the focus again shifts to another legendary wrestler, Jake "the Snake" Roberts.
Jake is portrayed as a man who had unlimited potential in the wrestling business but failed in the end because he could not control his demons. We encounter him wrestling in a high school gym in North Platte, North Dakota, and we see that when Jake hits the ring his character still works. He never had a great body, and certainly it is even in worse shape now, but his personality, that unrelenting evil that he is able to get across to the audience is as sinister as ever. We meet Jakes father, former wrestler Grizzley Smith, who never attained the heights in the business that his son achieved. Jake feels like is father was never there for him and that he spent his life trying but failing to gain his father's approval. He tells a story about the first time he wrestled professionally. His dad came backstage after the match and told him that he would never amount to anything. Part of Jake's drive for success then was always tied up in showing up his dad.
Shortly after that, the film shifts back to Terry Funk and his "retirement" party in Amarillo, where he wrestled then WWF Champion Bret Hart is what was billed as his last match. We meet Funk's fellow Amarillo wrestler Dennis Stamp. A journeyman wrestler who never achieved the level of fame of his neighbor. In one scene we see Funk trying to cajole Stamp into accepting the position of referee for the match. Stamp refused twice, then changed his mind and agreed. After the match (which he lost), Funk thanked his fans and said goodbye with blood dripping off the end of his nose.
Funk's retirement lasted all of three months and then he was back appearing in the WWF as Chainsaw Charlie.
Back to Jake Roberts, wrestling now in Kearny, Nebraska. During this segmant there is a painfull to watch reunion with Robert's estranged daughter whom he hasn't seen in four years. She meets him at his hotel restaurant and insists on bringing two friends along because she is nervous about being alone with him. The meeting lasted about 5 minutes then he excused himself to return to his room. In the next scene he visited her in her home. They are very awkward together and it is plain that she harbors a lot of bitterness toward him. Jake comes to the realization that although he never wanted it to be that way, he has imitated his father and thoroughly neglected his children. He is in tears but she remains dry eyed in his presence - only allowing herself to cry during an interview when he is not there.
Immediately after this meeting, Blaustein says that Jake disappeared for several hours. When the director finally tracked him down the wrestler was back at his hotel and high on crack.
It is six months since we last saw Mick Foley and he is the new WWF Champion and about to defend his title against the Rock in the infamous "I Quit" match at the Royal Rumble. In what clearly turned out to be a mistake, he brought his children to the show.
The Rock was a heel in those days and before the match in an unguarded moment he refers to himself as, "...the piece of shit that the Rock is..."
As the main event is about to start, Foley's wife and kids are escorted to seats near ringside. The boy, Dewey, about 8 years old, is subdued - like he knows what is coming. As the match proceeds he draws more and more into himself. The wife, Nicole, is plainly nervous as well but puts up a brave front in the early going. In the middle of the match, the Rock whips out a pair of handcuffs from somewhere and shackles the champion then proceeds to beat him repeatedly over the head and back with a chair. Now the little girl is terrified and is hiding her head and clinging to her mother, who is alternately hiding her eyes and trying to pull her son protectively under her arm. For his part the boy is fascinated and horrified, staring unflinchingly at the carnage but shrinking away from it at the same time. Having seen enough, Nicole gathers her children and leaves the arena to watch the rest of the match on a monitor somewhere upstairs in the building.
Backstage after the match, Foley assures his kids that he is alright while blood still covers his face and streams all over his white dress shirt. An EMT stitches up a cut in his head while Mick refers to it as a "little boo boo" - then amends that to say, "...a big boo boo." Nicole looks him in the eye and tells him that they aren't going to be able to take much more of this. As they leave the building later he quips, "Did you have fun?" Nicole deadpans cynically, "Oh yeah, we had lots of fun..."
A few weeks later we see Blaustein visiting Foley and Nicole in their home. He has brought the footage for them to review. As he watches his family's reaction to the match, Foley is shocked and vows that he will never put them through anything like that again. The movie comes to an end on that note.
This is powerful stuff, folks. A movie like this could help turn around the public perception of pro-wrestling as an illegitimate carnival side-show, and it's fans as degenerate low-lifes. As can be seen from reading the SF Chronicle review reprinted above, at least one non-wrestling fan gained a better insight into what it is we all love about this crazy past time.
I urge you all to take a look at this film, and do it soon because there is no telling how long it will last in theaters. A good turnout for this first week of release would make all the difference in the world regarding the eventual success of this venture.
At least that's the way I see it...
Editor, Solie's Wrestling Newsletter
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This page is a personal tribute and is in no way connected to any of the wrestling promotions mentioned on it. It is dedicated to the Dean of Wrestling announcers, Gordon Solie.
Copyright 1999 - Jump City Productions