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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/23/04

Beyond the Mat
Ringside Special Edition - Unrated Director's Cut - 1999 (2004) - Universal

review by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits

Beyond the Mat: Ringside Special Edition - Unrated Director's Cut Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/B+

Specs and Features
108 minutes, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (with director Barry Blaustein & Terry Funk), Up Close and Personal Conversation visual commentary (with director Barry Blaustein, Mick Foley & Jesse Ventura), Dinner with the Legends discussion (with Mick Foley & Jesse Ventura), theatrical trailer, production notes, cast & filmmaker bios, program-themed menu screens, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Spanish, French

"The movie Vince McMahon doesn't want you to see!"

So professional wrestling is funny, right? There are men in spandex underwear. There are men in spandex underwear groping around with each other. There are men in crazy costumes doing bad acting in over-the-top plots. Then they pretend to beat each other up. It's fake. It's low class. In short, it's all just a bit embarrassing.

So be it. When I was a kid, I was a huge fan. I went down to the Civic Center in Atlanta to watch TV tapings of WCW. My parents would surprise me with WWF pay-per-views. I pretended to wrestle with my friends, and then I grew out of it. There was a brief period in college when I became a fan again. For a few years there, wrestling was cool again.

Those few years are the focus of the documentary, Beyond the Mat. Made by wrestling fan Barry Blaustein, the film takes a look behind the curtain to see the makings of the wrestling industry. For more than an hour and a half, Blaustein shows us the best and the worst of an industry that most Americans look at as some sort of carnival of the absurd. The truth, however, is that for all that's fake there is the very real impact of a business that grinds its employees (and their families) to dust. There's no union, no benefits, and most veterans end up without much to show for their fame but memories.

The main thrust of the documentary is on three wrestlers in particular: Mick Foley, Terry Funk, and Jake "The Snake" Roberts. Foley is easily the most successful and happiest story in the bunch. He's retired now, healthy with a beautiful wife and children. Better yet, he's a best-selling author, but he could just as easily have been a statistic. On more than one occasion, he came close to being paralyzed or permanently maimed. As it is, he lost one of his ears.

Funk hasn't been particularly less lucky, but he's torn his body to shreds. His family is fearful for his health, and he just can't get out of the game. Who knows if he'll live long enough to see actual retirement? But the truly tragic character in this drama is Roberts, who's both washed up and living with the shambles of a ruined life. He's drug-addicted, with a loveless father, and a daughter he essentially abandoned for a life on the road. Without any money and fewer years ahead of him than behind him, Roberts is the essence of how the wrestling business can go wrong for a performer.

It's all there, from the best to the worst, for fans and non-fans alike. The best part of this documentary isn't that it gets behind the scenes, but that it gets into the love of wrestling that pervades everyone from the performers to the mark who believes it's real. For those who want to lampoon professional wrestling as so much fake theatrics of would-be-athletes would do well to watch this film. It probably won't change your minds, but it will give you some idea of the people who make the industry what it is, why they do it, and how it is anything but fake to them. There's a love here, and it shows up even when the film is discussing the worst of the wrestling world.

This DVD, a re-release of the original disc, dives a bit deeper into that love. Granted, the video is no better than before. Presented in full frame with all the grainy qualities of wrestling TV footage mixed in with stuff shot by Blaustein, the film presents wrestling as it has always been seen, on the small screen. That doesn't, however, lend itself to high-end video. So despite this being a special new release, don't expect anything better than grainy stock footage and your average documentary style cinematography.

The audio is much the same. As a documentary, it doesn't require much in the way of range, and you don't get any. Presented in 2-channel Dolby audio, it's as good as the previous DVD release and no better. This is something of a standard issue with documentaries, so it's not really disappointing so much as it is hardly exceptional.

The extras, however, are a place where documentaries can really shine on DVD. By and large, this disc honestly aspires for greatness. Blaustein has brought Mick Foley together with Jesse Ventura, and we get a brief featurette featuring all three of them discussing the film and the wrestling industry over dinner. Blaustein acts more as a moderator, tossing questions towards Ventura and Foley, with both heartily stuffing their faces while they talk. It's a good little feature, and you kind of wish they'd extended it.

Instead, the DVD splits off a considerable portion of this dinner and turns it into a visual commentary track. This fragmentary affair has the three participants watching the film and commenting on what they see, but instead of doing a straight commentary, the DVD has Foley and Ventura pop on the screen Mystery Science Theater 3000 style. Plenty of pearls are there, but mainly for the wrestling fans. That's not a slam, because the information is generally good, with high quality insight into the business of wrestling. Sadly, the execution is poor in so far as a good idea collapses under the technical reality of most people's DVD players. This would have been a great feature if they left them on the screen the whole time. It's obvious they are talking virtually nonstop over the entire film, but the DVD cuts back and forth between them and the movie. On many a DVD player, this creates jarring chapter switches. Granted, it's a one or two second freeze, but it appears at the beginning and end of each little bit of commentary. This could have been a cool feature, instead it's just good commentary weighed down by a tedious technical flaw.

Better than that is the straight audio commentary track with Blaustein and wrestler Terry Funk. It's not better content-wise, but its execution makes it an easier piece of candy to swallow. Funk takes many side paths, but all of his tangents are enjoyable memories and insights into an industry he's been involved with for four decades. A trailer and some standard production notes close out the deal.

In the end, the film is one that will predominantly appeal to wrestling fans, but in a way it's a larger insight into the American culture and human nature in the microcosm of a carnival life. There are the capitalist promoters, the human performers who end up good and bad, and there's the family behind it all. It's more amazing that these guys build the kind of community on the road, especially in light of all the manipulation and backstabbing that goes on. Perhaps that's life, and in the love that Blaustein has given this film, we find a telling commentary on that life.

Brad Pilcher
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