Should I Watch..? Beyond The Mat
What's the big deal?
Beyond The Mat is a documentary film released in 1999 conceived and directed by Barry Blaustein. It examines the world of professional wrestling in the USA, specifically the work of the World Wrestling Federation or WWF as it was known then. Originally granted permission by WWF owner Vince McMahon, the film suddenly found itself isolated as McMahon pulled all support for the film from WWF programming. As a result, the film earned its tagline: "The movie Vince McMahon didn't want you to see!". The film was released to a warm reception from critics and would go to earn more than $2 million at the US box office.
What's it about?
Barry Blaustein admits in the opening reel that he is a closet wrestling fan - he knows it's a show and that each match is carefully rehearsed, the outcomes broadly agreed beforehand. His fascination lays with the wrestlers themselves. After all, what kind of person can happily absorb a great deal of physical punishment and inflict it on another before going home to their normal life? Blaustein looks at three wrestlers at very different stages of their career: Mick Foley, Terry Funk and Jake "The Snake" Roberts.
Foley is a committed family man and enjoying the peak of his career, having finally secured a spot with the lucrative World Wrestling Federation (WWF) which is the largest and most successful promotion in the US. But he's ignorant of the effect his increasingly violent matches have on his wife and young children and shocked by their naturally horrified reaction. Funk is an aging pro, his body ravaged by years of injuries but who is unwilling to walk away from the industry - even if it means wrestling within the new 'extreme' style of wrestling promotion known as ECW. But for Roberts, whose career peaked in the 80's, his life can't get any lower - addicted to crack cocaine and estranged from his daughter, Roberts has no choice but to keep performing in school halls in front of a handful of die-hard fans. Blaustein doesn't get to ask too many questions but he does have free access behind the scenes at the WWF including its charismatic owner, Vince McMahon.
Mick "Mankind" Foley
Jake "The Snake" Roberts
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
Darren "Puke" Drosdov
Release Date (UK)
30th June, 2000
What's to like?
Blaustein's glimpse behind the pyrotechnics and makeup offers viewers an extraordinary view into a world rarely seen or understood to the outsider. It's easy to go along with the various characters and storylines when they are presented during the show but it's harder to believe that the 'fake' moves that take place in and out of the ring do have real, physical dangers. And while it's hard to sympathise with Roberts (who blames anybody but himself for his predicament), you genuinely feel for Funk and Foley who are unwittingly trapped in the business as they travel from city to city and state to state all year long. As long as the money is coming in, other things like long-term health and traumatised children come in a distant second. Blaustein at least demonstrates the good nature to show Foley the error of his ways which make him seriously consider his future.
It also takes great pains to demonstrate the very real dangers involved and the level of skill required to avoid permanent lasting damage. The film shows us Darren Drosdov, a former NFL player, who decides to become a wrestler. With a persona and gimmick in place (apparently, he can vomit on demand), it doesn't take long for things to go wrong. A botched move during an unaired match resulted in two fractured discs in Drosdov's neck. Even after intensive care, Drosdov was left a quadriplegic unable to walk - a fact Blaustein adds at the end of the movie which reinforces the risks and dangers these men put themselves through.
- Since the film's release, the WWF was rebranded the WWE after it lost a lawsuit with the Worldwide Fund for Nature. It also purchased WCW and ECW, reinforcing its status as the largest wrestling promoter in America.
- Barry Blaustein's screenwriting credits include Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment and the Eddie Murphy films Coming To America and Boomerang.
- Since the films release, all three featured wrestlers have been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame - Funk in 2009, Foley in 2013 and Roberts in 2014. Roberts would overcome his demons by working with another former wrestler, Diamond Dallas Page.
What's not to like?
Blaustein, for all his enthusiasm for the subject, is not a journalist and so rarely asks any probing questions of the participants. It might have been nice to hear more from Roberts whose tragic upbringing and drug habit feels part-excuse, part-soap opera. There's also little mention of the countless stories of steroid abuse that have plagued the WWE for so long. I doubt that Blaustein would have got the truth from McMahon but I also reckon that Vince might have had some difficulty dodging the questions.
It's also worth noting that time moves very quickly in the world of sports entertainment - most of the personnel featured have either moved on, passed on or become wrestlers in their own right like McMahon. The movie has an amateurish feel to it, as though Blaustein spent three years making endless home movies of his various travels to wrestling shows. It is also, frankly, a bit depressing. Nobody really emerges from the film smelling of roses and the mentality behind the show - that hitting people really hard gets you better paid - highlights how little the industry has progressed from the days of circus strongmen. Blaustein's enthusiasm for the product, one suspects, prevented him from digging too deeply.
Should I watch it?
If you're a hardcore wrestling fan then Beyond The Mat is an essential watch. It was the first time the industry presented itself in something like its true light (something most wrestlers like to do in their autobiographies, Foley amongst them) and for that alone, it is to be commended. However, it will look very dated these days as the industry has moved on from the so-called 'Attitude' era of the WWE in the same way that videos of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior looked dated back then. Newer fans to wrestling might think twice before watching this.
Great For: wrestling fans of bygone days, psychiatrists
Not So Great For: newer wrestling fans, proper sportsmen and women, very young children
What else should I watch?
The biggest problem with Beyond The Mat is its age. But what if there was a more recent documentary about professional wrestling? There is - Bloodstained Memoirs was released in 2009 (OK, still not that recent) but contains interviews with current wrestling stars like Rob Van Dam and Chris Jericho as well as covering the sport in other countries like Mexico and Japan where professional wrestling is also big business.
For a documentary with an actual agenda, there are a couple of men to look up. Morgan Spurlock's excellent Supersize Me looks to expose the shadowy world behind McDonalds while Bowling For Columbine is Michael Moore's attempt to understand America's love of guns and wonders whether anything can be done to prevent further tragedy.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox