"Who are these guys?" asks Barry Blaustein at the beginning of Beyond the Mat, his documentary about professional wrestlers. It’s an excellent question, coming as it does while a dozen gargantuan men, all dressed and painted like visions from a child’s nightmare, engage in an all-out riot to the roars of a manic crowd.
Beyond the Mat is a behind-the-scenes look at pro wrestling, but it pays only glancing attention to rehearsal sessions or the wrestlers’ tricks of the trade. Instead, it zeroes in on such subterranean aspects of this gaudy, dismaying sport as the wrestling schools at the bottom of the food chain, or the regional leagues that serve as a farm system. Blaustein also gained access to the executive offices of the World Wrestling Federation, a billion-dollar corporation that holds the most valuable licensing rights in America. There he sits in as CEO Vince McMahon creates the ring persona for a young prospect whose marketable talent consists of vomiting on cue. (The newcomer is dubbed "Puke" the same way that Hollywood producers used to hand out names like "Cary Grant.")
The film is populated by dozens of fascinating, and often unlikeable, characters: a two-bit promoter who chisels his wrestlers at every turn; two young hopefuls getting their shot at the big-time; a would-be impresario whose pep speeches are profanity-laced versions of the Horatio Alger ethos; an embittered never-was who pouts like a child until a superstar invites him to referee a match.
But Beyond the Mat is primarily focused on a handful of the WWF’s biggest stars from recent years. Blaustein invested two years in gaining the wrestlers’ trust, and the effort resulted in his staying at their homes, driving cross-country with them, attending their family functions. Among those he interviewed is Terry Funk, at 53 a marvel of durability and an elder statesman on the wrestling circuit, whose cauliflower features do little to mask the melancholy streak that runs through him. Jake "The Snake" Roberts, a man whose emotional damage seems irreversible, shares wary, agonized reunions with both his distant, rock-hard father and his own long-estranged daughter, leading to his stinging realization that the two relationships are identical – that he has truly become his father’s son.
The central figure in many ways is Mick "Mankind" Foley, who’s had one of the WWF’s most spectacular careers, both in and out of the ring. His bouts are marked by sensational stunts that could easily result in serious injury (we see him flung from the top of a chain-link cage to the ground some 25 feet below), while away from the ring his autobiography rode the New York Times bestseller list for a while. Between royalties, endorsements, and purses, he’s pulling down more than a half a million dollars a year, and with his intelligent, self-deprecating presence, he’s one of the WWF’s golden boys.
But some of Beyond the Mat’s toughest sequences deal with the terror felt by Foley’s two young children every time he climbs into the ring. Before each bout, Foley and his wife feed them a "Daddy is only playing" line, but their assurances ring hollow because these kids can distinguish between what is and isn’t play – they know that the blood forming a spider’s web over Daddy’s face is real. In one horrific match, they watch from front-row seats as their father, his hands cuffed behind his back, is slammed over the head time and again with a metal folding chair. The way they wince and wail in time with each blow stretches a moviegoer’s endurance to the breaking point – this violence isn’t being faked on any level.
(It’s worth noting that this sequence has led to some interesting fallout. McMahon, who fully cooperated with Blaustein during filming, has doled out a severe economic sanction by refusing to run ads for the film during WWF television programs. And in a move with a different kind of importance, Foley has announced his retirement from the ring.)
Beyond the Mat is Blaustein’s first film, a fact that’s apparent in the short spurts where he finds himself more fascinating than his subject. Shots of the house where he grew up, or of him sharing a laugh with Jesse Ventura over some unheard joke, don’t tell us anything other than Barry Blaustein’s giddiness can sometimes get the best of him.
And Beyond the Mat never explicitly addresses one of the most troublesome aspects of pro wrestling. People who decry the sport often extend their disdain to those anonymous faces crying out from the semi-darkness of the stands. It’s easy to assume that all of those fans are undereducated trailer trash, but it would be just as easy to confront us with our own prejudices against them. It’s probably asking too much of this 90-minute documentary to take on all of America’s class biases, but pro wrestling occupies such a conspicuous fault-line in our culture that one wonders how Blaustein could avoid mentioning it altogether.
Yet Blaustein and his film have at least put a human face on those monstrous countenances that snarl out from our television sets on Saturday afternoons. It’s no mean feat to look past our stereotypes at people whom we’ve come to regard as cliches, but Beyond the Mat forces us to do just that.
– Tom Block