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"BEYOND THE MAT"
(1999) (Mick Foley, Terry Funk) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Documentary: A behind the scenes look at the lives and careers of several professional wrestlers.
PLOT:
Professing to be a closet pro wrestling fan, director Barry Blaustein takes the viewer on a behind the scenes documentary about professional wrestling. Focusing on the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Blaustein introduces various wrestlers at different stages of their careers. Among them is Terry Funk, a 53-year-old former star whose wife and health problems are forcing him to consider retirement.

Jake Roberts (a.k.a. Jake the Snake) was also a former star, but his battle with personal demons, including drug use, has marred his career and personal life, reducing him to competing in makeshift venues for little pay while having to deal with his estranged father and adult daughter. Then there's Mick Foley (a.k.a. Mankind), a self-professed family man whose dangerous stage antics leave his wife and young children cringing over the prospects of him really getting hurt.

Backstage, there's Vince McMahon, the latest owner of the WWF who's turned the family-run business into a billion dollar empire, while Roland Alexander, an accountant turned small-time wrestling school coach, tries to get his "students" their break by teaching them everything he knows about sport. As their personal lives and careers are explored, along with brief bits about Chyna, a bulky female wrestler, and two professional wrestler hopefuls, Tony Jones and Mike Modest, Blaustein uncovers and reveals previously unknown sides of the sport and the people involved with it.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When I was a kid growing up during the '60s and '70s when TV consisted of getting up and manually switching between three channel choices (four, if you counted PBS), one of the goofiest "guilty pleasures" of the time was watching regional professional wrestling.

Vastly dissimilar to either today's multibillion dollar business or the competitive sport featured in college and secondary schools, such TV programs became best known for instigating heated arguments between those of us who knew it was all faked and those who contended that it was real (when we weren't arguing about whether body builders were really strong or not, along with other unique kid-based debates).

Of course, pro wrestling back then was nothing compared to what it's become today, and that's a phenomenal entertainment form that reaches across most demographics. In fact, some of the participants are as famous (and equally larger than life) as movie stars, the multitude of related TV broadcasts in which they appear earn high ratings, and their traveling "road show" matches routinely sell out huge venues.

Even so, and despite the increasing popularity and proliferation of what's been called theater at its most base and absurd level, little is known about those involved in the entertainment sport beyond the promotional hype. After all, whose psyche would Barbara Walters seemingly rather probe and examine in the comfort of their home, Tom Hanks or "Mankind?"

Now Babs needn't concern herself with such matters since writer turned documentary filmmaker Barry Blaustein has taken it upon himself to show a rarely seen side of those involved in the sport with "Beyond the Mat." A one hundred or so minute behind the scenes look at the pro wrestling industry as well a few select players from both in and outside the ring, the film is surprisingly rather entertaining and insightful, even for those who aren't big fans of the sport and/or don't pay much attention to it (yours truly falling into both categories).

Unlike the nature documentaries seen on the likes of National Geographic and The Discovery Channel, today's such non-nature/scientific films often come off as a way not only to impart insightful and perhaps educational material, but also occasionally to push one's personal agenda, prove that the filmmaker is a comedian and/or draw attention to their directing "prowess." One need only look at the documentary work of the likes of Michael Moore ("Roger and Me") or Myles Berkowitz ("20 Dates") to see some or much of that in play.

While that's not necessarily an inherently bad thing (as it takes often dry material and makes it far more entertaining and enjoyable), it does make some viewers (and many critics) ponder over the validity of what's being shown. In fact, some acclaimed and/or entertaining documentaries of the past have been proven to contain prefabricated material, thus crossing the fine, but necessary line between documentary and fictional work.

Although a few moments in Blaustein's film appear a bit suspicious and possibly staged for the camera (including some back stage moments, such as a whole bit about WWF owner Vince McMahon wanting to name a new wrestler "Puke" for his ability to vomit at will), much of it seems like the real thing.

After all, the sight of huge, lumbering men in tights and other goofy costumes "wrestling" each other, often with obviously choreographed and faked stunts, has its own built in humor, thus preventing the former writer of films such as "The Nutty Professor" and "Coming to America" from having to add much original content to liven things up. Even so, Blaustein does manage to get in some quite funny barbs, via voice-over narration, that add to one's enjoyment of the film.

Filmed over several years of following a handful of wrestlers as they tried to break into the business, flourished in their current careers, or wallowed in the pangs of potential retirement and/or being considered "has beens," the documentary is quite easy to watch. One certainly doesn't need any preexisting knowledge of the sport to follow what occurs or is discussed, and many viewers will probably come away with a far better knowledge, and perhaps potential appreciation - at least to some degree - of the men and women behind pro wrestling.

Although the film contains both humorous and more personal moments - including one wrestler who can control neither his internal (drug use) or external demons (having an estranged father and adult daughter) - the most insightful moments involve Mick Foley, a.k.a. "Mankind," and his lovely wife and two young children.

Obviously highlighting the contrasts between the wrestler's personal and professional lives, the film shows the two colliding as we witness Mrs. Foley and their kids being traumatized in one instance by the sight of their husband and father being bloodied and repeatedly bashed over the head with a folding metal chair.

One certainly has to question why they are there in the first place - after all, such violence clearly isn't a novel or unexpected occurrence in such matches - but one can see the remorse in Foley's face when Blaustein later replays the footage of his horrified wife and children. While we never know if the wrestler changes his ways upon that revelation, it certainly adds another layer of complexity to the sport. It also shows, along with most everything else in the film, that it's hard work with its own unique share of related pitfalls.

In essence, the first time documentary filmmaker wishes to show that those involved in pro wrestling are just like us (facing the same concerns and fears), except that they wear skimpy and/or exotic costumes while punching, kicking, dropping onto tables and pummeling each other with chairs and other objects in the name of "entertainment."

In that regard, Blaustein mostly succeeds and in doing so delivers an often intriguing, funny and entertaining look at these people. While it probably won't change the minds of fans or non-fans regarding pro wrestling, it certainly gives the flashy form of sports entertainment a more human dimension. As such, "Beyond the Mat" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 10, 2000 / Posted March 17, 2000


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