"I don't know why I like it, I just always have" are the first words spoken by director Barry Blaustein in his revealing documentary about American pro wrestlers. Ask the legions of fans who make this mix of sport and theatre a $1 billion a year industry and you'd probably get much the same response. As someone who grew up with an almost religious reverence for Channel 9's World Championship Wrestling I can identify with Blaustein's sentiment.
More than any other televised sport, professional wrestling has been revolutionised by marketing to the point where not even those who control it bother to pretend it's anything but an elaborately choreographed act. Other than glimpses of the costume, scriptwriting, music and make-up departments at World Wrestling Federation headquarters, Blaustein doesn't dwell on the point; focussing instead on the wrestlers themselves. Fortunately he's found a collection of combatants whose stories are at the least interesting and, in some cases, genuinely moving.
Finding out what makes these hulking behemoths tick, away from the hype and spectacle, makes this a compelling showbiz story. It's hard not to be affected as Jake The Snake Roberts reveals the ruinous effect of his career on his marriage and relationship with his daughter or by the wife and children of Mick "Mankind" Foley as they look on in horror while dad's bashed to a bloody pulp in a no-holds-barred match.
All the backstage stories are represented in the ranks of these wrestlers who take the idea of giving the public what it wants just about as far as it can go. There's the ageing champ who won't quit (Terry Funk), the black kid from the wrong side of the tracks made good (New Jack), a host of aspiring stars slogging it out in the backwoods hoping for that big break and even the ex-champ who made it big in politics (Governor Jessie Ventura). Blaustein's respect for his subjects and the sensitivity he applies makes this an involving and even uplifting humanisation of a grotesque form of entertainment."
"Against all expectation, Beyond The Mat is a remarkably moving film. Initially there is some concern that director Blaustein (former head writer of Saturday Night Live and writer/producer of many Eddie Murphy films) is too much of a wrestling fan, that the film will be about his love affair with the 'sport'. But as the film progresses his decision to take us on the journey through his eyes really pays off, progressing from a wide eyed approach to a harsh view of the reality of the lives of those who go out there to provide the entertainment.
That said, the editing is a little undisciplined at times but for the most part his naïve approach makes for riveting viewing. Blaustein begins with a broad canvas, showing us aspirants on both the wrestling and promotional front. Particularly astonishing is the gimmick offered by ex-footballer Darren Drozdov: he can vomit at will.
Witnessing this in an audition for WWF, head honcho Vince McMahon decides he will go by the handle 'Puke'. The real appeal of the film though, is yet to come. Blaustein focuses on the lives of three current and former champions. And what stories he has evoked. Terry Funk's struggles with retirement are a study in the psychology of fame, of human value. Jake 'The Snake' Roberts carries an horrific family background with attempts to reconcile with his own daughter proving shattering for subject and audience member alike. Shots of the faces of the children of Mick Foley as his head is cracked open and blood pours down his face are only bettered by vision of Foley watching that footage. This is surprisingly good stuff."
"When several thousand punters packed the Sydney Entertainment Centre to watch ex-rugby league star, Anthony Mundine (or as he prefers: Mundine: The Man), make his boxing debut against some has-been who looked like he'd struggle to go two rounds with Mr Bean, it was obviously more about spectacle than the finer points of pugilism. Combine showmanship and violence and you're on a winner.
This is professional wrestling's mantra. One third pageantry, one third camp-ery and one third choreography, pro wrestling ranks alongside Parliament question time as one of the basest forms of popular entertainment. Intriguingly, this doco reveals that it's not as fake as you think. These guys really belt each other, and they really bleed, they're just really chummy about it afterwards - backstage, of course.
We also get an extended look at their private lives. This is the bit where WE suffer. The moral dilemmas of human pain absorber, gentle giant and family man Mankind (Mick Foley) make for some interesting moments, but extended forays into the personal problems of Jake 'The Snake' Roberts and the inability of old timer, Terry Funk, to know when to hang up his tights had me surrendering and crying for mercy long before their conclusions. Far more fascinating was watching pro-wrestling's El Supremo, Vince McMahon, christen a new recruit. Puke he calls him, in honour of the budding canvass thumper's chief talent.
Somehow, today's villains just don't seem to have the charisma of the old baddies - whatever happened to the likes of Killer Kawolski? Maybe there's an opportunity here for Mundine. He's short on bulk, but the size of his ego should cover, and he'd have the perfect villainous moniker should his fight career fall flat: Mundane, The Sham."