Universal // 1999 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 16th, 2000
There's no script for what happens outside the ring!
Whether you are a fan of professional wrestling or not (and quite a few more are than will admit it), Beyond the Mat is a strikingly honest and heartfelt documentary covering what the fans do not see, and is well worth seeing. Admitting from the beginning the showmanship aspects, it moves on to the personal, professional, and business aspects of wrestling, and has many shockingly moving moments. From the bottom rung of the wrestling ladder to the pinnacle at the top, this documentary covers every aspect with a ubiquitous camera poking into every nook and cranny for over 3 years. A truly informative and engrossing documentary by Barry Blaustein (screenwriter for Saturday Night Live, Coming to America, and the two Nutty Professor films, among others), this Universal DVD goes even farther with several commentaries adding even more personal insight. Well worth your time, even if you don't like wrestling.
The documentary covers professional wrestling through the eyes of many people who either are involved in the business, wish to be involved, or are family members of the wrestlers. From the eldest veterans such as Terry Funk to contemporaries like Mick Foley and the Rock, and down the ladder to the newest hopefuls and the has-beens, we see their lives in and out of the ring. We also get quite a birds-eye view of the WWF, the biggest iconic organization of wrestling today, with plenty of inside footage of the McMahon empire. Tons of interview footage and personal scenes that are hard to believe were done with a camera in the room mix with insightful narration and commentary.
Veteran wrestler Terry Funk enabled the project to go ahead, by introducing Blaustein to many of the wrestlers and people in the film. Over a two year period he managed to gain the trust needed to get the footage for the film; taking over 5 years in all.
Right from the beginning the film makes clear that wrestling is far more about spectacle and business than about fighting and championships. You are able to see the wrestlers discussing how the fight should progress, practicing their lines, and even being kind to each other's children right before a match where they will beat each other bloody.
One pleasant fact comes through as well: just how nice some of these wrestlers are behind the scenes. Terry Funk and Mick Foley, who get a great deal of coverage, come across as caring family men with sensitivity and heart amidst a brutal profession. Of course not all of them are so nice; a few of them are downright scary. And not in the performance for the crowd sense either.
Another powerful aspect of the film is the personal look at the lives and families of some of these veterans. Jake "the Snake" Roberts has some extremely gripping scenes as we see his shattered life, his wounded family, and the downward spiral from the top to the bottom. Some of these scenes, such as when Jake visits his estranged daughter, are so powerful it is hard to believe that they would talk as they do in front of a camera. To no small degree this is because of the length of time Blaustein spent following them around, to the point where they could forget the camera was there. More uplifting is the family scenes of Mick Foley and his wife and two small children, but even there a scene showing his kids watching him being beaten by a chair cannot fail to upset the viewer.
Last, but certainly not least, the film discusses the very real danger and injury that comes from these bouts. Just because a fall onto a table or a concrete floor is planned does not mean it doesn't hurt, and it doesn't mean the blood is any less real. Terry Funk, at 53 the eldest wrestler at the time, has shattered knees and many other injuries. In these days of the WWF and its great popularity, the business has gone far beyond the old planned, painless moves. In order to provide ever greater spectacle some real risks are being taken, and no punches are being pulled (pun intended) in making that point.
For what must have been miles of footage, Blaustein does a great job of tying and intertwining it all into a coherent story. Several producers were also involved, including Ron Howard, but this was Blaustein's show. This was not a staged effort; much of it having the flavor of a news report following the principals around with a handheld camera. But where it lacks in polish it gains in realism and immediacy.
This is not the type of film demanding extremely high picture quality, and it doesn't have it. While the image is often grainy and the detail level soft, it accomplishes what it needs for a documentary. Likewise, the Dolby Surround soundtrack does little but keep everything focused in the center, but the sound is clear and you can understand the dialogue perfectly.
The disc really shines in the extras department, however. Two feature length commentary tracks are supplemented by two partial tracks from wrestler Mick Foley. His two tracks last 8 and 20 minutes respectively, covering different parts of the documentary that concerned him. The two feature length commentaries are first by director Barry Blaustein (I should mention this is his directorial debut), and the second with Blaustein accompanied by wrestler Terry Funk. All tracks lend a wealth of information on top of the great insights given by the documentary itself. Several screens of production notes, Cast and filmmaker information, and the theatrical trailer complete the extras.
I have surprisingly little to complain about. Starting out my expectations were very low, as I am not a fan of professional wrestling in any sense of the word. While the film did not turn me into a fan, I feel as if I know much more about the people who do inhabit this surprisingly complex world, and can feel a bit more empathic toward it.
I mentioned the picture quality, which varies from approximately TV broadcast quality to grainy home video standards, but again it does not disappoint considering the type of film it is. I'd have been more dubious about it if everything had been staged and properly lit and filmed for a pristine image.
This documentary is absolutely worth a rental by anyone, wrestling fan or not. I'm sure wrestling fans will want to own this as it offers deeper insight into the people they know and love (or hate) than anything I've seen before.
Universal and the makers of Beyond the Mat are absolutely acquitted. The wrestlers are thanked by the court for offering such details about their lives so that people may understand them better. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Multiple Commentary Tracks
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Info
* Official Site