June 30, 2000
Beyond the Mat answers the bellInside look at pro wrestling, warts and all
By STEVE TILLEY - Edmonton Sun
Strange as it may seem, there actually once was a time when people earnestly debated whether wrestling was real or fake.
Now, with scripted storylines that would make an Emmy-winning writer jealous and wrestlers who are as much actor as athlete, the world of wrestling doesn't seem to have many secrets left to surrender.
Not so. Beyond the Mat, opening today at the Garneau Theatre, is an often hilarious, frequently eye-opening and sometimes painful documentary glimpse behind the satin curtain into the world of professional wrestling, from the sport's version of the bush leagues on up to the World Wrestling Federation and its action-figure demigods.
Directed and narrated by screenwriter Barry Blaustein, who co-wrote The Nutty Professor and its upcoming sequel, the film profiles a handful of characters, including legendary wrestlers Terry Funk, Jake "the Snake" Roberts and the WWF's hugely popular Mick Foley.
Blaustein spent five years shooting and editing the film, beginning with the long process of gaining the friendship and trust of the people he wanted to profile. It obviously paid off, because the film peppers its straight-ahead documentary storytelling with some surprisingly candid, poignant and painful moments.
All the highs and many, many lows of wrestling are represented, from a newcomer getting an audition with WWF impresario Vince McMahon (McMahon dubs the kid Puke because the wrestler is able to vomit on command) to Foley's wife and young children dissolving into horrified tears as Foley is beaten into a bloody pulp in the ring.
Blaustein also looks at two careers on the wane: Terry Funk, whose 53-year-old body is almost ready to give out, even though he's not ready to let go of wrestling; and former WWF superstar Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who has sunk so low he's reduced to wrestling alongside midgets in dreary Midwestern agriplexes, then retreating to his room at the Ramada to smoke crack and ponder a family history rife with pain and violence.
Blaustein isn't naively trying to convince anyone that wrestling is a legitimate sport or a noble calling. He sums it up accurately with his opening remarks: "I look at wrestling as theatre at its most basic."
But what he has done is shown the human spirit behind the merchandising facade, and the human cost that some of these men have paid to do what they love.
Even for those who aren't fans of wrestling, Beyond the Mat is a fascinating and often funny look at a world many of us have never imagined, let alone seen. Hardcore fans will likely see the movie no matter what, and that's a good thing ... Blaustein hasn't let his obvious love of wrestling blind him to its ugly warts - warts that won't ever be captured by official WWF cameras.