More noise than signal

Beyond the Mat

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Beyond the Mat opens with the standard defence of an adult wrestling fan, although I’ve always thought said defence should be “Go fisherman’s suplex yourself, I like it”. I suppose it’s worth repeating for those looking down their noses at wrestling – there’s plenty of reasons to do so, but a lot of the common ones are stupid – but, yes, everyone knows it’s fake unless they’re very young kids or of equivalent mental age.

The best comparator I can think of is of a magic show – just as that audience does not truly believe that the assistant has been sawn in half, this audience does not believe this is a real fight. A willing suspension of disbelief was key to the historical success of the business, although that rather changed when Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s WWF expanded rapidly, made an outright push for the young kids demographic, and went from state to state in the 80’s declaring that it’s all a work because he could pay less tax that way.

That aside, you may still think it’s silly, and indeed it is, particularly if your mental image of rasslin’ is still in the first heyday of the 80’s Hulk Hogan era, which showed that even then, income inequality was a concern, with many wrestlers having to work two jobs just to get by, featuring wrestlers such as Issac Yankem, the wrestling dentist, or Sparky Plugg, the wrestling NASCAR driver, or Doink, the wrestling clown, or Repo Man, the wrestling, well, repo man. However, some people considering it silly does not stop other people enjoying something, as videogame fans will attest.

At any rate, Beyond the Mat is screenwriter Barry W. Blaustein’s attempt to find out what drives the wrestlers to put their lives on the line throwing each other around the place for our entertainment. What’s made this documentary interesting to wrestling fans is that Blaustein somehow achieved a level of access into the normally closed shop of the WWF that has, with the exception of Wrestling with Shadows, never been seen, with any subsequent documentaries being a rather more sanitised, WWE-friendly affair than this more honest, if not exactly comprehensive look, which is probably the reason it’s never been repeated.

There’s a few main strands to the piece, but most roads lead back to the Federation. We’re introduced to small-time wrestling promoter and training school owner Roland Alexander, trying to secure a try-out for the WWF for his two top talents Tony Jones and Michael Modest, and their hopes of making it into the big leagues.

While there, we run into another lead in the piece, Mick Foley, or Cactus Jack / Mankind / Dude Love / Mama Foley’s Baby Boy. After a career of taking the most ludicrous bumps of them all, he’s WWF Champion and about to main event a concussion-tastic “I Quit” match with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnston, who may be familiar to filmgoers.

Also employed by the WWF, but looking to move up the pecking order is Darren “Droz” Drozdov, a former NFL player who McMahon sees as a future star based on being able to market his ability to vomit on command, which if nothing else proves that he’s not infallible.

The remaining two threads concern former WWF stars. Well, sort of, Terry Funk appeared in the Fed but was never a mainstay. Jake “The Snake” Roberts, however was, and his then current state of drug addiction while still wrestling for small promotions is a sorry sight to see.

Meanwhile Terry Funk’s long career of taking damage almost as severe and often much more bloody than his friend Mick Foley is coming to an end, sort of, after his appearance at young upstart promotion and haven for garbage hardcore wrestling Extreme Championship Wrestling’s first PPV. Which was impressive for someone who’s knees were in much worse condition than Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises.

Now, I think this is pretty obviously an interesting bunch of things for any wrestling fan, lapsed or otherwise to watch, so I’ll probably not talk to you lot any further, if that’s alright. You’ve either already seen it or you should do so forthwith.

How does it fare for people who don’t care about wrestling, is the more pressing question. Perhaps we can answer that between us, but let me first say that if this is interesting to anyone outside wrestling fans, how much credit should go to Barry Blaustein is up for question, as in the main what he’s done is turned up and filmed things. And perhaps that’s enough, but of his stated aim of digging deep into the motivations of the wrestlers, there’s not a great deal of progress made more than some superficialities.

Jake Roberts seemed content to share some dark history that might explain how he wound up where he did, but there’s none of the investigation shown to give us a narrative on it. No examination of the pressures he’s under, or the drive to perform, or the WWF steroid scandals, or the life on the road, or the painkiller addictions, etc, etc.

The closest we get to questioning anything is showing Foley the footage of his family’s reactions the brutal “I Quit” match, but even then there is very little follow up to it. As a documentarian, comedy scriptwriter Barry Blaustein perhaps isn’t the most rigorous.

He has, however, got lucky, inasmusch as the bulk of the wrestlers featured are great characters, and at interesting times in their careers and lives, so it’s interesting almost by default.

As to how things turned out, neither Tony Jones and Michael Modest made it to the big leagues, and Droz was rendered quadriplegic after a botched powerbomb shortly after this film’s release. Jake Roberts went even further off the straight and narrow than this film shows, before latterly getting himself sober. Foley stopped wrestling full time in 2001, albeit regularly coming back for some featured feuds and latterly various non-active on-screen roles basically to this day.

As for Terry Funk, the film notes that his first retirement lasted all of three months. His most recent retirement match was on October 24, 2015 at the age of 71. He is insane.

There’s probably a checklist you could run through against the craft of documentary film-making that Beyond the Mat would fail against very hard indeed, but almost in spite of itself, it’s wound up being quite interesting. I’d recommend this to general audiences with little hesitation.