One of my all time favorite pro wrestling documentaries is Barry Blaustein’s 1999 Beyond The Mat. I think a big part of that is because WWE opened up their doors to him for unprecedented access, much like the acclaimed Wrestling With Shadows Bret Hart film. It’s very rare for the secretive McMahon empire to let an outsider come in and make their own judgements and tell their own story about the company.
Story being the key word … Beyond The Mat is fake as hell!
Ok fake is quite an inflammatory term for wrestling fans, but now I’ve got your attention I’ll explain what I mean.
From the looped “Hello, World Wrestling Federation” sound-bite at the beginning, giving the impression that WWE HQ’s phones are always ringing off the hook, New Jack’s hilarious Hollywood audition with two people who were worse at acting than him, or Terry Funk waking up in the morning with a camera in his room, the whole film reeks of being staged.
I don’t say that as if I’ve made some shocking discovery, most high budget documentaries are tantamount to fictionalized movies, with the creator’s own vision dominating the narrative. Whether it’s Morgan Spurlock’s non-replicable fraud of a movie Supersize Me, or Michael Moore pretending that you can just walk in to a bank and get a free gun in Bowling for Columbine to sell his anti-gun agenda, these kinds of productions are always contrived to some degree.
It’s just in re-watching Beyond The Mat recently, it occurred to me just how hammed up a lot of it is. My stoned couch-locked mind also found the idea of a staged documentary about a staged sport ironic and fascinating.
The part where this hit me most was when Mick Foley as Mankind was getting his head bashed in by The Rock with a steel chair, as his young children looked on. The story being told was essentially that Foley was a bad parent, that wrestling may go too far sometimes, and at that time it certainly wasn’t for children.
However the scene of his wife wailing like a mad woman, sitting front row, was so phony it made me laugh out loud. She should have joined New Jack in Hollywood. It’s not like she didn’t know what she was doing and what to expect, she’d been married to Cactus Jack for how many years? And far from his kids being horrified at daddy playing with The Rock, it seemed Dewey was more bemused as to why she was causing such a scene, and the Foley daughter was bound to get emotional while being clutched by her melodramatic mother.
I’m not trying to be mean, but let’s not kid ourselves that they weren’t seated there for the express purpose of capturing the performance.
“I was about to film the Royal Rumble match and I knew I needed that match. I told them like two months in advance that I’d be filming on this day,” says Blaustein.
Mick was involved with the film from the beginning and saw it as a way to get himself in the limelight:
When Barry Blaustein started shooting it in 1995, before I was signed by WWE, I really thought that would be my major way of being remembered. That that would be my lasting legacy, being part of that film. Luckily, I ended up doing some other things, too. But yeah, I always enjoyed being part of that movie.
In reality the story wasn’t about Mick being a bad parent for letting his kids watch him in an I Quit Match, it’s about him being a bad parent for letting his kids be exploited for a documentary.
On a side note I’m surprised WWE would ok such a negative narrative, if they knew at all. Though it was the pre-concussion era.
Despite my criticisms, what makes Beyond The Mat such good viewing is that it was created by a movie maker. At the time Blaustein was best known for Police Academy and the Nutty Professor, and as far as I know he’s never made other documentaries. The editing, the musical score and his down to earth narration all pull at the heart strings and at times make you crack up laughing.
My favorite scene in the whole documentary is Jake Roberts noticing he had something stuck to his jacket. He begins picking at it with utter confusion: “What, is that chocolate?”
Any other filmmaker may have edited that clip that out.
As much as there’s clearly staged and contrived elements in the film, it’s the harsh reality of Jake Roberts’ struggles with addiction and his inability to emotional connect with his daughter, that makes Beyond The Mat so important. It was one of the first times that fans got to see wrestlers as people. We learned that the life of a wrestler can be extremely damaging when they have deep-seated issues like Jake.
Seeing his life turn around with help from DDP would make the perfect sequel.
Although wrestling may be “fake”, the emotionally crippled Snake, the near literal cripple Terry Funk, and the stories of up-and-comers grafting to make it, gave the viewer a new found respect for one of the toughest forms of entertainment out there, which at that time broke new ground. If you haven’t seen Beyond The Mat, or watched it in a long time – it’s well worth it.
In closing I think the most important message we can take from the documentary, is that Dennis Stamp needs to get booked more!
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