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 Episode 3: Embracing Attitude

The Attitude Era is considered by many fans to be the WWF’s greatest era, featuring the height of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s popularity, along with the Rock, Mankind, and DX.

This episode opens with the more cartoon-ish gimmicks of the pre-Attitude WWF, such as the Sultan, Steve Austin’s Ring Master gimmick, and Ron Simmons in that goofy looking helmet.

Eric Bischoff was riding high with Monday Nitro and the NWO story line. At the time he believed WWF would never recover. Someone warned him that WWF was about to try Howard Stern/Shock Jock type programming, but he dismissed that thinking it would never work.

The Austin/Pillman gun incident is covered, where they filmed a segment at Brian Pillman’s home during which he fired a gun at Austin. Hugely controversial at the time, Vince apologized on air the next week. However, announcer Jim Ross said they got a 75% positive response from their audience to that segment.

Sports journalist Bill Apter is interviewed for this documentary. He supplies a few quotes as it is explained that from here the WWF roster became more edgy. Acts like the black militant group the Nation of Domination formed, as well as De-generation X.

Vince McMahon’s opening speech on the 12/15/97 edition of Raw is shown, where he explains how his programming will now be more contemporary, and away from the older formula of good guys vs bad guys.

By January of 1998 Raw was still losing the ratings battle to Nitro but was on the rise with its new edgier gimmicks like Val Venis (basically a porn star), sexual chocolate Mark Henry, Mr. Ass (Billy Gunn), and the pimp character the Godfather.

Meanwhile, Eric Bischoff still wasn’t impressed. Jericho says that Bischoff was telling people in six months McMahon will lose his TV sponsors and go out of business. Meanwhile Sable (who is not interviewed here) is shown on TV guide, and Nash says that she beat any segment Nitro had at that point.

Just as WWF was embracing the Attitude Era, the corporate structure of Turner Broadcasting was becoming more restrictive on WCW. Standards and Practice representatives were in the WCW creative rooms while porn star Jenna Jameson did a segment with Val Venis on Raw, and WWF introduced their hardcore title.

WCW embarrassingly tried to compete with the Attitude Era while wearing the Standards and Practices handcuffs. They tried their own hardcore title, and we see that clip where Terry Funk almost legitimately almost got kicked in the head by a horse. We also see the infamous junkyard invitational, the viagra on a pole match, and Judy Bagwell on a forklift match. WCW Stunt Coordinator Ellis Edwards is interviewed here and says “I would tell them the things I would do in the stunt business and they would write it into the storyline.” This is the one part of the episode I would have liked to have seen more elaborated. I would have like to have seen who thought of trying to have a WCW Hardcore title and how they balanced that with standards and practices, etc.

This episode layed out the interesting parallels of the shifting creative direction of WWF that mirrored the more restrictive environment of WCW, but I would have like to have seen more of the struggles that came with the latter.