Beyond the Mat
Directed by Barry W. Blaustein
Review by Matt Heffernan
When I was a kid, professional wrestling made its comeback through the advent of cable television. Vince McMahon took his father's regional operation, and turned it into a billion-dollar company called the World Wrestling Federation. Seeing that cable could get such huge ratings with wrestling, Ted Turner jumped on the bandwagon and formed World Championship Wrestling to show matches on his networks. This alleged sport (McMahon calls it "sports entertainment") is more popular than ever, and now a true fan has made a documentary as a tribute to this theatre of violence.
Barry W. Blaustein has co-written screenplays for various films (including Eddie Murphy's Coming To America, Boomerang, and The Nutty Professor), but this is his first directorial effort. He films himself as he follows and interviews several people in the wrestling industry. He starts at the very bottom, visiting a wrestling school and promotion firm run by accountant Roland Alexander. He quickly moves to the top, as he follows Alexander and two of his students to a match that opens a WWF show.
Of course, the most interesting stories are about people who have gone to the show, and now waste away in the minor leagues. Blaustein follows "living legend" Terry Funk in his last few weeks as a wrestler. In his mid-50s, this member of a wrestling dynasty is throwing in the towel after a match in the alternative Extreme Championship Wrestling. That's a fairy tale compared to the state of Jake Roberts' career. Jake "The Snake" was a big star in the WWF during the 1980's and early 90's, but is now an overweight crack addict, doing pathetic shows in front of miniscule audiences.
Blaustein has a way to go as a documentarian. His real experience is as a comedy writer, and he is really unsure of how to make a film. Based on filmmaking, the TV documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows is far superior. But, Blaustein does manage to capture some compelling scenes. Most of these come from footage of Roberts as he talks about his troubled childhood, and reunites with his father and daughter.
Also interesting was a part where he followed Mick "Mankind" Foley. Formerly known as "Cactus Jack", Foley is at the height of his career, but is considering retirement. Blaustein films a match where Foley is to lose the WWF Heavyweight Championship to Duane "The Rock" Johnson. Foley invites his wife and two young children to the event, which ends in him getting repeatedly hit in the head with a chair and a large laceration on his forehead. Balustein films the Foley family as they react in horror, then films Foley as he watches the footage with his wife.
This film does manage to succeed in its stated goal: to show that wrestling is not as fake as you think. The matches are choreographed and the winner is pre-determined, but the wrestlers suffer real physical and emotional harm. What Beyond the Mat shows is that this damage extends to these families, while people like McMahon profit enormously. In fact, McMahon has banned any advertisement of this film during his shows, but not because of any negative depiction -- he just wanted to get a piece of the action.
For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Beyond the Mat (1999)
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings
Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan