Judge Adam Arseneau only has three words for you: GET THE TABLES
"E-C-W! E-C-W! E-C-W!"
Extreme Championship Wrestling: the mere words enough to get even the mildest of wrestling fans worked up into a slobbering frenzy. The absolute epitome of a cult phenomenon, ECW built its way up from a small-time wrestling promotion in Philadelphia into an underground sensation, changing the landscape of professional wresting on a daily basis, one bingo hall and broken back at a time.
The Rise And Fall Of ECW is a two-disc, three-hour documentary chronicling the early days of the infamous underground wrestling franchise. From the early days of rising from the ashes of Eastern Championship Wrestling and the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) to the passing of the torch to visionary Paul Heyman, the early matches, the word-of-mouth that lead ECW to garnish their own television syndication deal with TNN, the slow and methodical draining of quality talent to the WCW and WWE, climaxing with the violent financial demise of the organization, ending with the bittersweet purchase of the ECW franchise in bankruptcy court by the WWE. Ouch.
Facts of the Case
Though absolutely no competition whatsoever in any direct sense, ECW was the only other franchise that could be mentioned in the same sentence in the 1990s alongside "the big two"—Vince McMahon's WWF (now WWE) and Ted Turner's WCW franchises—not in revenue generation or market share, but simply out of sheer infamy, rabid fan appreciation, and fantastically talented wrestlers. While the WWF and WCW battled the airwaves for Monday nights, ECW quietly went about its business breaking teeth, faces, arms, and legs in dingy auditoriums on the East coast, radically transforming the face of professional wrestling forever with their extreme style. ECW were making a business out of beatings and blood, offering fans daily doses of violence at a time when mainstream wrestling was offering…well, Doink the Clown.
More like a monster truck show without the trucks than a sporting event, a typical ECW match involved chairs, audience taunts, broken tables, baseball bats, scantily-clad women, ladders, wrestlers busted open (eg. bleeding), and, if you were lucky, barbed wire, high-flying lucha libre aerial maneuvers, thumb tacks, and fire.
That about covers a "normal" match. For a special event match…well, things could really get wild.
ECW's perpetual state of obscurity and low-budget production values basically ensured the show complete and total creative freedom. Since the tiny promotion could not even hope to complete with the big-league production values, pyrotechnics, and lighting and set designs of the WWE and WCW, they simply ignored these elements. Shows were shot wherever and whenever they could be booked, usually in an empty bingo hall dubbed "ECW Arena," but occasionally in school gymnasiums, abandoned warehouses, and usually with a single camera operator. ECW had the production values of a flea market infomercial, which made it an incredibly tacky and ugly show to watch…but this total lack of presentation allowed the promotion to concentrate one hundred percent of its energy on breaking backs, noses, tables, and chairs. They played to their strengths.
Despite the organization's relative obscurity, the influence of ECW upon the wrestling world today cannot be denied, as much as figureheads like Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon would like to deny it. One of the best parts of The Rise And Fall Of ECW is watching interview segments with these wrestling magnates, shifting irritably in their seat when asked about the influence of ECW, the big babies. While the tiny wrestling league was nowhere near the level of the WWE and WCW in terms of promotion, spectacle, production value, distribution, market share, popularity, and just about any other element one can measure to rate success, it nevertheless made an impact on the wrestling world (quite literally) through its wrestlers. These well-oiled machines (literally) that cut their teeth in the ECW went on to become massive successes in other leagues; wrestlers like Chris Benoit, Chris Jerico, Rob Van Dam, Eddie Gurrero, Rey Mysterio Jr., Mick Foley, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Dudley Boys, Tazz, and numerous others all broke their first table in tiny gymnasiums under the ECW banner.
The wrestlers in ECW did anything, and I mean anything they wanted. Climb up to the rafters and jump into the crowd? Sure, go ahead. Nobody would even think to stop you, attach a safety harness, check the structural integrity of the building, or get the owner of the building to sign liability wavers, etc. Want to light a table on fire, throw thumbtacks down, and smash a guy into it? Why not? Start harassing audience members, hurl all manner of sexual and racial insult, spit on them, and throw chairs at them? We practically insist. Lawsuits? Paul Heyman's father was a lawyer. Let' em sue!
With a total disregard for all social niceties, health code violations, personal and professional liability insurance, and the thousands of other reasons why a show like ECW could never, ever be made, Heyman and his band of wrestlers simply went out and made it. Lawsuits got filed, bones got broken, wrestlers got hurt…nobody asked permission, or filled out paperwork, or get liability insurance…they just did it. You could actually hear Vince McMahon's lawyers start to hyperventilate whenever the words "ECW" were mentioned. The show was a walking death trap in every sense of the word. And the fans loved every second of it.
Fans at an ECW show were the modern-day equivalents of Romans watching a lion devour a slave in the Coliseum, the masses screaming and hollering for more blood. If the fans liked a wrestler, they actually picked him up and crowd-surfed him around the auditorium. If a wrestler drew their ire, they would throw beer bottles, chairs, anything they could get their hands on, and wait for them outside in the parking lot with baseball bats and surround their car. ECW fans could be even more hardcore than the wrestlers themselves. With this spirit came the infamous "E-C-W!" chant, echoing throughout the auditoriums not only as a symbol of appreciation for the entire promotion as a whole, but also a catcall of extreme violence, a synonym for anything particularly extreme, daring, or dangerous. The call even made its way into the WWE and WCW, much to the chagrin of the big-league promotions. Whenever a wrestler did something particularly impressive, crowds would erupt into the "E-C-W!" chant, regardless of which wrestler happened to be wrestling (and the tradition even continues to this day, greeting ex-ECW wrestlers in moments of extreme appreciation).
The Rise And Fall Of ECW is just a fascinating piece of filmmaking. To borrow a Paul Heyman metaphor from the feature itself, in the 1990s, professional wrestling were hair bands—lots of fluff, lots of hair, garish and ridiculous costumes, heavy on the glitz but lacking any real oomph. ECW was like Nirvana—ugly, disheveled, terrible production values, crawling out from a dingy garage in order to tear the heads off the industry. What it lacked in presentation it made up for with sheer rampaging aggression. This analogy is apt to a certain degree; Nirvana of course ultimately became exactly what it set out to decry in the first place, but ECW never really had the chance to become a major player in the business, due to a…combination of factors. Once the league made its play to network television, they found out the hard way how difficult it can be to appease 'the network' in terms of acceptable content, and their absolute refusal to compromise and cut back caused the network to abandon them like a hot rock. And despite the fantastic success of the brand, all the money somehow vanished into thin air, which has never been completely explained, but often put down to the horrifyingly poor business management skills of Paul Heyman…great wrestling mind, terrible man to hold the money. ECW often had no money to pay their wrestlers every week, and the lack of steady pay caused many of the top wrestlers to jump ship for other wrestling promotions (ones that actually pay them on time).
The documentary certainly captures the rise and fall of the enterprise with conviction and a sense of authenticity, bolstered by candid interviews with Paul Heyman and former ECW wrestlers, fondly remembering the golden days. Today, ECW is nothing more than a brand within the WWE blanket, trotted out occasionally for promotional purposes or for storylines, merely a piece of intellectual property. In a sense, ECW still lives on…but hearing the wrestlers speak of the glory days, the scary independent days, going weeks without paychecks, putting their bodies on the line for the sake of the sport they love, you really get the impression they were part of something special. Utterly insane, but special.
ECW was wrestling counter-culture, the exact opposite of everything that modern professional wrestling at the time stood for: a small focused demographic, a local market, dedicated fans, hardcore wrestling, complex storylines, etc. Today, all these elements are mainstays in the WWE, having been incorporated into the machine with eerie precision and efficiency, but at the time, there was simply nothing like it. And they were proud of it.
The Rise And Fall of ECW is both persuasive and convincing…you watch the documentary, and you feel the loss. Well, sort of. If the documentary has a weak point, it would be taking itself too seriously. Watching the wrestlers wax poetic about the past, and listening to the string quartet of somber, lonely violins slowly swell is a decisively un-wrestling maneuver, one completely out of place with the subject matter. The violins swell, and as much as that sounds like an allegorical joke…well, it isn't. Yes, ECW fell apart, and yes, the wrestlers feel bad, but the documentary has a nasty habit of overselling its point at times. A wrestling documentary is a lot of things, but a tearjerker it is not. Nevertheless, The Rise And Fall Of ECW is well-written, well-produced, full of candid and informative interviews, and downright compelling to boot. You do feel bad for the wrestlers, but hey; business is business.
The video transfer overall is quite good. The newly recorded interview segments, which constitutes roughly a third of the footage in the documentary, are sharp, clean, and crisp with excellent color balance. The rest of the feature contains a fantastic amount of archive footage from the WWE vaults, including old clips from archaic wrestling promotions, WCW and ECW stock footage, news clippings, and so on. From a wrestling fan perspective, this is a gold mine, but from a DVD presentation standpoint, it suffers the same wild inconsistency that all documentaries suffer when dealing with multiple and dated material sources. At times, the transfer gets slightly pixelated and mechanical, a bit too digital, especially when dealing with the older footage, but one simply cannot find this material presented in DVD quality anywhere else. Thumbs up.
The audio, a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, sounds great, with clear dialogue in the front channels and music spread across the rear, decent bass response, and excellent fidelity. A simple 2.0 track probably would have sufficed, but no reason to knock the audio presentation. Pretty straightforward and standard documentary level stuff, but with just the right amount of oomph…it rocks.
The second disc contains some extended and unedited interview footage and seven of the most infamous ECW matches, three of which contain commentary tracks by the wrestlers and WWE commentators discussing the match. The commentary tracks are decent enough, but at times slightly awkward for the WWE commentators, not quite used to calling archived matches from foreign wrestling promotions. These matches are nice to have for the sake of posterity and will surely appeal to the die-hard ECW fan, but for anyone else not really, really, really into ECW, the material is slightly superfluous. Wrestling, for some reason, does not age well, even under the best of conditions, and these are some of the worst. Some of these matches are a good ten years old, shot on terrible cameras in tiny auditoriums with dreadful sound quality…you have to be hardcore just to watch them without breaking down in tears. The high production values of network wrestling, especially in the last decade or so, will have spoiled the pleasure centers of everyone but the most hardcore of ECW fan, so keep extremely low expectations when you watch the material, which is…raw, to put it politely. Amateur wedding night video raw. High school technology class school project raw. You get the idea. But that was ECW. They shot the show in a bingo hall on the east side of Philly and called it "ECW Arena." 'Nuff said.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Is this a great documentary? It most certainly is. An incredibly great documentary, in fact, full of blood, sweat, tears and a genuine amount of feeling for its subject matter, full of big honking wrestlers opening up their hearts to speak fondly of the tiny little wrestling league that they gave so much to, of all the broken bones, teeth, ears, time, and money sacrificed to be part of something "real," something dynamic and thrilling. But is this an honest documentary? No, probably not.
The problem with a documentary about a failed wrestling league, created by the parent corporation that swallowed up the intellectual properly rights in a hostile takeover, with writing credits for the film going to the visionary force behind the original league (and the one who ultimately drove it into a wall) is…well, I shouldn't even need to spell it out. We are talking massive conflict of interests here, the likes of which most documentaries do not even need to consider before creating. All documentaries have an agenda, but this would be like Greenpeace making a documentary about whales, or perhaps more accurately, like gun manufacturers producing and funding Bowling For Columbine.
The film walks a fine line between consternation and complacency, a position that feels strained at times. The film seems to place the demise of the organization falls squarely onto the shoulders of Paul Heyman, sort of. This is in stark contrast to his own testimony in the film, finding "alternative" reasoning behind his failure…like subtlety, but not really, pointing the finger at the people paying to make the documentary (and the people who currently employ him). See what I mean? It gets confusing. One wonders whether this is the documentary version of a forced videotape prisoner confession, like a guy tied to the chair in a dimly lit room, dully saying things like "I give this testimony of my own free will and was not coerced in any way, shape or form," before coughing up a bloody tooth.
Even casual wrestling fans will find interest in The Rise And Fall of ECW, but not too casual a fan…this is hardcore stuff, after all. But there is something inherently beguiling about the David vs. Goliath story of ECW's rise to infamy, never becoming a major player in the industry, and yet managing to influence the direction of wresting for years to come, shifting the direction of wrestling through proxy. That is something for ECW to be immensely proud of, and deserves to be recognized.
Could ECW have ever become a player in the industry, competing directly with the WCW and the WWE? Not a chance in hell. But you gotta give it to them for trying.
As to what point this kind of film stops telling the "truth" and start becoming "product placement"…alas, this is an unanswerable question. One does wonder if it can be coincidence that on the heels of this DVD, the WWE is gearing up to release an ECW reunion pay-per-view extravaganza. An attempt to revitalize the brand name within their own organization? Who knows?
But for a wrestling documentary, this is as good as it gets. So really, I don't care what you would call it. It's good. Leave it at that.
The verdict: Eee-cee-dub!
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