Beyond the Mat Documentary Retro Review

In March of 2000 comedy writer Barry W. Blaustein made his directorial debut in Beyond the Mat, a documentary about professional wrestling. He wrote, directed, and produced this documentary about something which he loved all his life, but admits always feeling embarrassed about it.

Beyond the Mat starts with the filmmaker’s own childhood, explaining how he was always a wrestling fan.He recalls seeing a wrestling show as a kid, and feeling befuddled when after the show he saw one of the wrestlers meeting their own family backstage. Seemingly in that moment that wrestler appeared to be a normal family man. Hence, the essential question of this documentary is, who are these people that become pro-wrestlers?

Blaustein starts at the top with the WWF. At the time of this filming the WWF was worth close to a billion dollars, which the filmmaker says is more than the New York Knicks, Rangers,and Mets put together. During a business meeting we hear that WWF was, at that time, the #2 license (I presume this means in retail products) and that they were fighting it out with South Park. WWF is compared to the Muppets, in the sense it’s a family business involving fictional characters. Vince McMahon is interviewed, and gives a very interesting insight into his business. He explains that a lot of people don’t understand what they’re really about, saying “We make movies.” He goes onto say he makes monsters, and compares WWF to the old Hollywood Studio system.

Writer Vince Russo is seen backstage with Sable (Russo would go on to write for WCW). We also see the wrestler and former Denver Bronco Droz, who apparently early on was going to base his wrestling persona around his ability to vomit on cue. It is noted at the film’s end that shortly after the film wrapped, Droz was paralyzed in the ring. There are also a few wrestlers that briefly get screen time sharing their gripes against Vince, including Justin Credible, Koko B. Ware, and Al Snow. While it’s not clear in the initial viewing, Blaustein’s audio commentary reveals Al Snow is in fact talking about his previous run in WWF where he had a different gimmick called Avatar.

World Championship Wrestling is not covered in this film at all. It is only mentioned twice in passing, once by an indy promoter and once by an ECW fan. From the time I saw this in the theater I wondered why that was the case. On the same commentary Blaustein reveals he approached WCW but they would not sign the necessary paper work to let him film. He says WCW wanted creative control of the project. Interestingly enough, he adds that even though they are not covered, WCW programming still ran adds for the show and apparently discussed it on air.

Vince McMahon/the WWF were not as cooperative at first either. The commentary reveals that Ron Howard, who produced the film, lived near Vince McMahon, but amusingly only had a slight understanding that he was somehow involved in the wrestling business. After several meetings Vince finally agreed, but later wanted to control the project, offering to cover the film’s budget. Vince’s request was declined. Apparently after the movie came out WWF stars were told not to do press for the film, nevertheless, Blaustein and WWF star Mick Foley appeared on Larry King Live around the time of the film’s release.

Back to the documentary, Balustein’s favorite wrestler, Terry Funk, is profiled next. Extreme Championship Wrestling is also profiled along with Funk, as Funk wins a match at the first ECW Pay Per View. ECW was a renegade ultra-violent promotion based out of Philadelphia that had a rabid international fan base. Blaustein says in the film “No fans scared me more.” Just after this documentary was made ECW had a TV deal on TNN.

Later, due to health problems, Funk decides to retire and have one last match (It should be no surprise to hear his retirement doesn’t last long). His “last match” is in Amarillo Texas, where he lives and is a local celebrity. His opponent is then WWF champion Bret Hart. WWF and ECW wrestlers are show in the audience. Personally I didn’t see any WCW wrestlers in attendance, but ECW’s Shane Douglas says that only Terry Funk could have brought together people from WWF, ECW, and other promotions. Two fans are also interviewed who came all the way from England for this match.

From Funk the film segues into Mick Foely, perhaps the most unlikely WWF champion. His friendship with Terry is highlighted, and the climax of the film is his brutal I Quit Match against the Rock at the 1999 Royal Rumble, which his wife and two young children had front row seats for.

Also of note are the segments with Jake the Snake Roberts, who was at a low point in his life at the time, and was heavy into drug use. At the time Jake objected to how he was portrayed in this film. He has subsequently got himself through treatment and has been clean for a while. I imagine his feelings on this film might have changed over time.

WWF female superstar Chyna is briefly portrayed, as is former WWF star Koko B. Ware, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, ECW’s Spike Dudley and New Jack, and a small California based promotion. From this promotion two indy wrestlers get a WWF try out.

Beyond the Mat is perhaps an unintentional time capsule of a time when wrestling was the in thing. Blaustein on his commentary observes, correctly in retrospect, how wrestling was hot at that time, but adds “I know that will go away pretty soon.” While it is disappointing that WCW is not covered, it seems that was beyond the filmmaker’s control. The goal of the film was to cover the types of people that become professional wrestlers, and I would say it had mostly succeeded at that.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Part 8: The Austin Era Has Begun

Stone Cold Steve Austin is undoubtedly the most popular star to come out of the Monday Night Wars. Some wrestling fans even argue he was more popular than Hulk Hogan. Episode 8 of this documentary focuses on his story, and opens with Austin himself saying he had to fight and claw for everything he ever had.

His time as Stunning Steve is covered in WCW, where he went from singles competition, to tag team, then back to singles where he had a great match with Ricky Steamboat. Early frustrations are shown as we see a WCW clip of Mean Gene hyping Hulk Hogan, then going to interview Steve Austin. Austin on camera calls out Gene for hyping Hogan when he’s supposed to be interviewing him.

Bischoff is shown saying how Austin was starting to be irritable to be around, was always hurt etc. Eventually Bischoff let him go. From there he went to ECW, while he was injured he cut promos ripping Bischoff and Hogan and the rest of WCW. It’s here his eventual Stone Cold persona started to come out.

From ECW he went to the WWF where he was the Million Dollar Champion, managed by Ted Dibiase. However, when Dibiase went to WCW Austin was on his own, and had more of an opportunity to develop his character. He’d seen a documentary about a bald hitman for hire, and thinking about that cemented the Stone Cold Steve Austin character. His King of the Ring victory is covered with the famous Austin 3:16 quote, as is his “I Quit” match at Wrestlemania with Bret Hart. His injury at Summerslam in 1997 led to him further developing his mic skills and anti-authority stance.

The Goldberg/Stone Cold comparison issue was inevitable, as it is suggested that Goldberg was WCW’s response to Stone Cold. Leave it to CM Punk to question that analysis, and rightfully so. Their similarities were only superficial, their actual characters were completely different.

The episode ends with Vince selling the idea that Austin was the biggest star wrestling ever had.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Episode 6: Hart of War

The Montreal Screwjob is the most written about, over-analyzed and controversial incident in the history of professional wrestling. This episode starts with Bret Hart’s time before that incident and ends with the fallout and his time in WCW.

During the steroid trial of the early 1990s, Hulk Hogan testified against Vince McMahon in court. This steroid scandal partially led to the WWF focusing on stars that were not as large and muscular as Hogan. Bret Hart, a talented long time veteran, fit the bill. He and Shawn Michaels, another star also with a smaller build, were friends. A clip is shown of Bret saying they’re friends on WWF programming.

At Wrestlemania X, the two fought for the championship in an hour long Iron Man match. They were both excited about the match. Sunny is interviewed for this episode and she says there was some professional jealousy between the two but it was not personal.

However as time went on Bret became resentful of the attention Shawn was getting. He felt like he was having great matches and no one cared. Bret was also into the idea of being a role model, whereas Shawn Michaels character certainly was not.

Hart’s contract was coming up, and his business manager arranged a meeting with Eric Bischoff who asked him how much money he wanted. Thinking Bischoff would refuse, Hart said three million a year, to which Bischoff agreed.

Still wanting to stay in WWF, he ended up turning down a three year nine million dollar contract and signed on to WWF for a 20 year deal. Clips from the A&E Television Documentary Wrestling With Shadows is shown, which chronicled this period in wrestling history.

During this time Shawn was the WWF champion, but vacated the title claiming he had a knee injury. In an on camera interview Shawn says he “was not in a good place in 96.” That’s not specified much except that he was taking pills. Hart doubted his injury, and Shawn played up on that, doing a back flip during a TV appearance. Tensions continued as Shawn suggested on WWF programming that Hart was having an affair with WWF diva Sunny. Things came to a boil as Pat Patterson says the two got into an actual brawl backstage in Hartford Connecticut. These incidents, along with Hart being critical of the then new Attitude Era, caused Vince to reconsider his deal.

This leads Hart signing with WCW, and the Montreal Screwjob. At the 1997 Survivor Series in Montreal, Bret Hart lost the championship title to Shawn Michael. In the match, Shawn had Hart in the sharpshooter, a submission maneuver that was Hart’s signature move. Hart did not submit, but says he heard someone yell “Ring the bell.” Vince was at ringside during the match, and this would be Hart’s last WWF appearance for over a decade.

Former WWF writer Vince Russo says Hart was given every possible scenario on how to end the match and Hart rejected all of them. The story is that Hart wanted to win in Montreal, and hand the title over the next night on Raw. What this episode does not mention, but is covered in the women’s episode, was the Madusa incident. In the very beginning of the Monday Night War, on 12/18/95, Alyundra Blaze, the then WWF women’s champion, appeared on Monday Nitro, having just signed with WCW where she’d wrestle under the name Madusa. In the very beginning of the program she threw the WWF women’s title in a trash can. Vince and everyone else in the WWF was concerned that Bret Hart would appear on WCW programming and denigrate the WWF title.

Either way, Sgt. Slaughter gives an interview here and says Bret legitimately punched Vince McMahon backstage. This incident also gave birth to the Mr. McMahon character, that would later feud with Steve Austin in perhaps the most successful story line ever.

Meanwhile the episode suggests WCW didn’t know what to do with Bret. We see clips of him wrestling Disco Inferno and the Goldberg steel plate bit. However he did have a run with their title. His injury at Starrcade is covered, he had a few matches after that, but in October of 2000 he was officially done.

Eric Bischoff has said that when Hart came to WCW he was so upset about the Montreal incident that he lost his passion for the business. Hart says that he “never stopped trying.” That’s the extent that issue is covered.

Like the last episode, I would have liked to have seen more analysis toward the end. I wanted them to break down exactly how Bret Hart was used in WCW, as I said he did have their title. In what ways was he not used properly? How should he have been used?

Aside from that, this episode has a good structure of showing Hart’s story through this time in wrestling history, without overemphasizing the already done to death Montreal Screwjob.