I probably first saw Beyond The Mat, a somewhat infamous (to fans at least), documentary about professional wrestling in 1999 or 2000 as I was getting back into WWE (or then WWF) and exploring further into the worlds of ECW and other independent promotions.
Revisiting it now, 12 or so years on, it remains a striking look at the ‘sport’ and the personalities behind it and, I have to say, it really is far from a positive view.
Across the film director/writer Barry W. Blaustein focuses on a few of the men who have become internationally famous for their involvement with pro-wrestling, Mick Foley, Terry Funk and Jake Roberts, and paints a picture of them as they all stand at different stages of their career.
It gives an insight into the little known backstage world which, at that time at least, still had a lot of the feeling of the travelling carnival it grew from hidden within its façade of big business, or so this film seems to suggest.
As a fan of wrestling I find this dichotomy fascinating and while Blaustein never really challenges much of what we are seeing (he is a self-confessed fan too) what we see does raise some questions and provides a few answers – if more by luck than judgement.
If you come to this film for the first time now, and have seen Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, there are some things, particularly in the story of Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, which may already be familiar but here we get something approaching the truth of it, particularly from Roberts’ estranged daughter.
While the picture that Beyond The Mat paints of both the wrestlers and their fans isn’t always entirely complementary there is an element of the film that hints that Blaustein himself may not be blameless in constructing some of this view.
Of course I have no proof of this beyond the feeling I get from the film, but there are moments where I wonder if the mere presence of Blaustein’s camera escalates the situations depicted.
This is particularly noticeable during the segment on the Mankind’s (Mick Foley) ‘I Quit’ match with The Rock from the 1999 Royal Rumble where Blaustein follows Foley’s wife and two young children as they watch the, frankly brutal, match and their reaction to it and I couldn’t help but think would Foley have brought them along and would they have stayed in the front row as long as they did if the film camera hadn’t been on them.
But I guess that’s speculation.
In general terms the film doesn’t really feel like a cinematic documentary, rather it almost sits well as an extended edition of the episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends which dealt with the same subject, but in greater detail and with more background knowledge on display.
Its hard for me to say whether Beyond The Mat would be of interest to non-wrestling fans but, as a fan, it is a fascinating look into a now seemingly lost era of attitude in “sports entertainment” and I can’t help but thinking a version of this film now would tell a very different story and that this film may have sparked a lot of those changes.
and just to give you an idea of the I Quit match a few (fan edited) highlights: