Beyond the Mat (documentary)

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Much was made of the fact that World Wrestling Federation president Vince McMahon didn’t want ads for Barry W. Blaustein’s documentary “Beyond the Mat” to run during WWF programming. One has to wonder what he was so concerned about.

As exposes go, this one is pretty mild. It says in the first two minutes that most of the moves in professional wrestling are choreographed, and that the outcome of the bouts is determined beforehand. It’s nice to hear someone say what we already knew, but it’s hardly enough to have the film dubbed “The movie Vince McMahon does not want you to see!,” which is the tagline it’s gotten in some posters and advertising.

“Beyond the Mat” is an occasionally engrossing, mostly unfocused look behind the scenes at professional wrestling. The first half — the interesting half — shows us what goes in to creating a character, and how matches are devloped.

It is truly fascinating, not to mention funny, to see a Hollywood writer, who works on the staff at WWF, explaining to a female wrestler that she’s going to get hit in the back, and that this will be a key element in the bout. (“Sell the back,” he tells her, in true Hollywood fashion.)

We also get to see a wannabe wrestler’s audition. His hook? He can vomit on command. McMahon and his associates — who look more like investment bankers than wrestling masterminds — sit at a conference table and decide they’ll call the guy “Puke,” at which point they ask him to demonstrate his skill in the office wastebasket.

The inherent goofiness in pro wrestling is not lost on filmmaker Blaustein; “I look at wrestling as theater at its most base,” he says early on. No one ever pretends that it’s about the athleticism; it’s a show, it’s entertainment, and nothing more. We see all the pageantry and spectacle of a major WWF event, complete with announcers commenting straight-faced on the gaudy excesses surrounding a particular character (“My gosh, how many druids ARE there?” one of them says).

The problem is that Blaustein is TOO much of a wrestling fan. He seems not so much like a documentarian as a giddy fan who’s been given a backstage pass. He addresses some of the controversies in pro wrestling, but only superficially. This is his tribute to wrestling, obejctivity be damned.

The film loses its power to hold the average viewer’s interest in its second half, when it focuses on the family lives of wrestlers like Jake “the Snake” Roberts and Terry Funk. The idea is to show that these legendary performers have real lives, too, but one has to ask the question, “So what?” Blaustein was smart enough not to belabor the already-accepted principle that wrestling is fixed, yet he seems intent on establishing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that wrestlers have lives outside the ring. Duh.

Fans of Roberts or Funk may be interested to see what these men are like when not performing, but others may find it simply boring. Their stories are not especially compelling in the human-interest department; they’re for fans only.

C+ (; R, heavy profanity, wrestling violence, some blood.)

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