When one thinks of “pro wrestling documentaries” today, they’re almost always referring to the sort of stuff produced in-house by WWE and and streamed on WWE Network. After all, Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment behemoth executed Disney’s strategy before Disney did: They bought up the tape libraries of just about every wrestling promotion that went out of business over the years, giving them a near-monopoly on decades of pro wrestling history.
However, 20 years ago this month saw the arrival of a prominent documentary that was produced outside the auspices of WWE. And it was directed by a guy best known as a comedy writer.
An Unlikely Filmmaker
Barry W. Blaustein, a longtime pro wrestling fan who had written for Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s and would later be a credited co-writer of the Eddie Murphy movies Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, and Boomerang. For his directorial debut, Blaustein decided to explore his wrestling fandom. The result was Beyond the Mat, a sometimes disjointed overview of where pro wrestling was in 2000.
Beyond the Mat, which first surfaced in late 1999 but got its primary theatrical release in March of 2000 – and recently began streaming on Netflix – is best remembered for a handful of things: It was the first time Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson ever appeared in a movie, and it helped burnish the legend of Mick “Mankind” Foley; a longtime wrestling sideshow who used his everyman appeal to become one of the era’s biggest stars. And it also went super-dark in examining Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a 1980s star whose life by that point had devolved into drug addiction.
…a credited co-writer of the Eddie Murphy movies Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, and Boomerang.
The film, rewatched today, represents a fascinating snapshot of pro wrestling as it existed at the end of the 1990s. WWE was flying high amidst the boom of the Attitude Era, while stars of the past mostly performed before tiny audiences in small gymnasiums for nearly no money.
Under the Nose of Vince
The WWE did cooperate with the film to some degree, as Blaustein was allowed to film at WWE headquarters, and both backstage and ringside at WWE events. But Beyond the Mat is much grittier than the sort of polished stuff WWE would put out on their own network.
This is especially the case in the Jake the Snake section, in which Blaustein films the wrestler talking about how he was conceived when his father raped his mother (who was the 13-year-old daughter of the father’s girlfriend). He also discusses multiple other family tragedies and has an uneasy reunion with his estranged adult daughter.
Amid all the prominent deaths of pro wrestlers over the years Roberts, 20 years later, is still alive, and is 64 years old. He was the star of another documentary, The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, a few years ago, although that doc mostly functioned as a feature-length commercial for fellow ex-wrestler Diamond Dallas Page’s recovery-based yoga practice.
Beyond the Mat also made a big deal about wrestling veteran Terry Funk’s “retirement match” in the late 1990s; since wrestling retirements stick about as well as rock star retirements, it should come as no surprise that the Funker has had numerous comebacks and “retirement matches” in the years since. It does appear that Funk (who is now 75!) is finally now done for good.
In the Shadows of ‘Shadows’
Beyond the Mat arrived around a year after Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, the documentary that happened to catch the famous “Montreal Screwjob” on camera. Other non-WWE docs over the years have been of varying qualities, including one, about The Iron Sheik, which heavily implied that Sheik’s young managers were exploiting him and treating him as a social media puppet. Meanwhile, HBO and ESPN have jumped into the wrestling doc fray with acclaimed movies about Andre The Giant and Ric Flair, respectively – but WWE cooperated with those. There was also a doc about the late wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino that was eligible for the documentary Oscar last year.
Wrestling has changed a bit in the last 20 years. It’s not quite as much a part of the monoculture as it was during that boom period, although it remains very popular.
There are numerous popular wrestling podcasts – Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard is my personal favorite – and WWE Network has assembled a truly staggering library of footage. A well-capitalized rival, All-Elite Wrestling, has emerged to WWE, and Smackdown is even now on national television. And Dwayne Johnson and John Cena have emerged as the two biggest movie stars to ever come out of pro wrestling.
Wrestling has changed a bit in the last 20 years. It’s not quite as much a part of the monoculture as it was…
True, it appears that a large percentage of WWE fans despise the current product, which is way too dependent on guest appearances by the likes of Goldberg and The Undertaker, both of whom are now in their mid-50s. And the company’s continuing Faustian bargain with Saudi Arabia remains totally indefensible.
Nostalgia, however, remains a powerful force in wrestling fandom, and Beyond the Mat remains a worthwhile snapshot of one of its most fascinating eras.