This is the best documentary since “Hoop Dreams,” and it is not a coincidence that it, too, is about sports. That means that it is about money, ambition, competition, dreams realized and dashed, race, money, families — both functional and dys — integrity, money, corruption, rookies, veterans, money, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. And, did I mention money? In other words, it is about America.
If it had been fiction, we would dismiss it as a cliché. It has all the stock characters, from the young wrestlers with dreams, trying to break into the big time to the old-timers, families begging them to quit, who just can’t walk away. And it has all the stock situations as the characters test themselves over and over, giving their heart and often many other parts of their body to see how far they can go, competing with each other and with themselves. And it’s a story, as the narrator tells us, of “pageantry, athleticism, incredibly cheesy acting,” of “strong men taking matters into their own hands,” of guys who live to make people say, “I can’t believe they did that!” — of professional wrestling. It turns out that “it’s not as fake as you think.” The outcomes may be set in advance, but the blood is real.
Writer-director Barry Blaustein asks, “What sort of man bashes another man’s head into a ring post for a living?” And then he goes on the road to show us the answer. We begin with Vince McMahon, the fourth generation in his family to own the then-called World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment). At over $1 billion at the time of the film, it was larger than the New York Rangers, Knicks, and Mets combined. Its licensing scope was second in the nation, after South Park. If you ask him what business he is in, he doesn’t say sports -– he says, “We make movies.” And indeed, just like the old-time movie studios, they have in-house musicians, costumers, scriptwriters, and directors, who work together to create the spectacle. We even see props – – items that show up in the ring include snakes, a parrot, a branding iron, barbed wire, a metal folding chair, a toaster, and, perhaps most improbably, pedicured toenails on the feet of a female wrestler who protests, “You’ll make me cry!” when complimented.
We see McMahon working with a former Denver Bronco, whose ability to throw up on demand leads to the creation of a new “character” to be added to the WWF. Just as Norma Jeane Baker became Marilyn Monroe, Darren Drosdov becomes “Puke.” And we see a would-be wrestling superstar protesting to a director/coreographer, “That WAS my strut!” Puke is not a successful character (and, as we learn in a note following the movie, Drosnov is later paralyzed from a wrestling injury). But McMahon has endless ideas, even turning himself into a character, for all those in the audience who like to see the employees beating up on the boss. As they sing in “Gypsy,” “You gotta have a gimmick!”
Blaustein takes us to a training school for would-be WWF stars, where part-time wrestlers who make $25 a fight and live over the gym dream of getting their big chance. The two best students travel to the WWF for a try-out. And we see the upstart ECW –- Extreme Championship Wrestling, so low budget that, “Wayne’s World”-style, their promos are taped in the basement while Mom irons out of camera range.
They all hope to achieve the heights of superstars like Terry Funk, in his third decade of wrestling, and Mick “Mankind” Foley, who fights in a shirt, tie, and leather mask. And they hope to avoid the fate of Jake “The Snake” Roberts, whose family would make the Jerry Springer Show seem like Little Women, and who is at peace only in the ring (“In the ring, nothing hurts and everybody’s glad to see you.”). His erratic behavior and drug use have isolated him from everyone but the hard-core fans. But Funk and Foley are a part of deeply loving families who worry about them. Funk sits in his doctor’s office, gazing balefully at his x-rays as his doctor tells him that he needs a new knee. Foley tells his children that Daddy is only pretending (“They can’t hurt Dada”), but the children become hysterical when they see him get whacked repeatedly on the head with a folding chair, blood gushing from his forehead.
Even the superstars have dreams. Jesse “The Body” Ventura leaves pro wrestling for a successful run for the governor of Minnesota. He says, “Politics is way more cutthroat than wrestling.” And a black wrestler called “New Jack,” who claims four justifiable homicides, tries out for “Denzel’s pal” in Hollywood. Terry Funk just dreams of being able to stay in the game –- as an unsuccessful wrestler says, “I’d rather be in the main event than breathe.” But Mick dreams of a way out that will make it possible for him to take care of his family.
Parents should know that, like the WWF shows, this movie is violent and profane. Unlike the WWF shows, this is the truth, and scenes showing Jake with his estranged father and daughter and Mick’s wife and children horrified by a fight may be far more upsetting than the fights themselves. Parents whose children or teens see this movie should talk about the enduring appeal of a violent sport and about the ways that the wrestlers do and don’t communicate with their families. After all, even “Puke’s” first reaction on being hired by the WWF is to call his mom to tell her how proud she will be.