A gently and genuinely observed film whose subject is a garish, artificial display of mayhem, Barry W. Blaustein's "Beyond the Mat" is an emotional and evocative document of the professional wrestling scene. Generated by Blaustein's curious, lifelong love of the pseudo-sport, project is a rare nonfiction item funded by Imagine Entertainment.

A gently and genuinely observed film whose subject is a garish, artificial display of mayhem, Barry W. Blaustein’s “Beyond the Mat” is an emotional and evocative document of the professional wrestling scene. Generated by Blaustein’s curious, lifelong love of the pseudo-sport — his first words of narration, “I don’t know why I like it; I just always have,” sum up his nearly embarrassed point of view — project is a rare nonfiction item funded by Imagine Entertainment. Pic should be boosted by critical support, though it may fall between the B.O. cracks; this isn’t the WCW crowd’s idea of a wrestling film, and the typical docu aud would rather take smelling salts than watch pro wrestling. Post-theatrical bouts, though, look to be real knockouts.

Three years of cross-country filming, covering everything from the penthouse to basement of this gladiator wing of showbiz, is economically compressed into a heart-rending look at the pain behind wrestling’s kitsch. The clash of contemplative filming and tough, physical athletes battling demons in and out of uniform links “Beyond the Mat” with “Hoop Dreams,” especially when Blaustein (a screenwriter who helped create several of Eddie Murphy’s characters for “Saturday Night Live”) trains his tiny camera crew on the down-and-outs, wanna-bes and washouts of wrestling. Since no single wrestler’s story provides enough material for a feature, film shrewdly opts for a broad canvas, visiting both the behemoth World Wrestling Federation and its superstars as well as the scraggly Bay Area-based All-Pro Wrestling group and its struggling fighter-showmen looking for fame.

Blaustein acknowledges that this “sport” is all about spectacle and staging and has none of pro boxing’s true drama. He goes to the top, to the WWF, and studies the fourth-generation owner of the $1 billion enterprise, Vince McMahon, who shamelessly reveals that his company’s true mission is to make movies. McMahon comes off as a half-cocked tycoon (he gets in the ring for some bloody antics) when he interviews former NFL player Darren Drozdov for a starring role. Since Drozdov can vomit at will, McMahon suggests his stage name: Puke.

Dynamic contrast is provided by the All-Pro Wrestling crew, a motley bunch who at times seem one step away from the world of “Fight Club.” Owner Roland Alexander makes it clear to applicants and fighters that few of them will make any cash at all. Yet his best prospects, Tony Jones and Mike Modest, keep going, and try out for the WCW.

On the other end of the career arc is apparent wrestling legend Terry Funk, nearing the end of useful days but unwilling to hang it up for good. Funk’s doc delivers bad news — his right knee is so shot that it must be replaced immediately — yet Funk not only keeps performing, but does it in Extreme Championship Wrestling, outfit angling as the ultraviolent alternative to WCW’s more family-oriented profile.

Passing no judgment on its subjects, pic allows us to view Funk in one of two ways: as a man with no regard for his body or for his family’s welfare, or as the aging gunslinger whose pride doesn’t allow him to fade quietly. The same goes for Funk’s longtime ring rival and out-of-ring pal Mick “Mankind” Foley, docu’s example of a current superstar juggling tour pressures and family. Foley is famous as a savage beast when it’s show time, but is the model of a loving, caring father at home, where his young kids Noelle and Dewey adore him.

Blaustein is both perplexed and impressed with this contrast, and it leads to pic’s most powerful section, when cameras observe Foley’s concerned wife, Collette, and traumatized kids reacting in horror to an especially bloody show at Anaheim’s Arrowhead Pond. The lesson here is that the act is staged, but the wounds are extremely real, and when the wrestling star later watches a replay of Blaustein’s footage, he’s overwhelmed with guilt.

Further contrast is served by Jake “The Snake” Roberts, utterly lacking Foley’s parenting skills and letting his career crash and burn due to drug addiction. Like a walking, breathing warning to young men with WCW dreams, the crack-addled and out-of-shape Roberts travels from one third-rate venue to another, until he has a rare meeting with his estranged daughter Brandy and confesses his failures as a father.

While the WCW star parade rolls on — femme topliner Sable, now in legal wrestle with WCW, is briefly seen, along with a few other celebs — it is the personal stories of the losers in the business that most intrigue Blaustein. Digital video transfer to 35mm is superior, though production sound problems weren’t rectified in post.

Beyond the Mat

Production

A Universal release of an Imagine Entertainment production. Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Barry Bloom, Barry W. Blaustein. Co-producer, Debra Marie Simon. Directed, written by Barry W. Blaustein.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Michael Grady; editor, Jeff Werner; music, Nathan Barr; sound (Dolby Digital), Ron Garrard, Shawn Holden, Peter Verrando. Reviewed at USA Films screening room, Beverly Hills, Oct. 15, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.Camera (FotoKem color), Michael Grady; editor, Jeff Werner; music, Nathan Barr; sound (Dolby Digital), Ron Garrard, Shawn Holden, Peter Verrando. Reviewed at USA Films screening room, Beverly Hills, Oct. 15, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Terry Funk, Mick Foley, Jake Roberts, Vince McMahon, Roland Alexander, Collette Foley, Dewey Foley, Noelle Foley, Brandy Smith, Paul Heyman, Tony Jones, Mike Modest, Darren Drozdov.
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