A lifelong fan of professional wrestling, director Barry W. Blaustein seeks to put a human face on this larger-than-life spectacle, which he sees as an intoxicating fusion of showmanship and athleticism. Even though he’s a "Saturday Night Live" alumnus (former head writer), Beyond the Mat never once makes fun of its subjects. Instead Blaustein has made an affectionate and insightful documentary geared for novices and devotees alike.
Like many filmmakers tackling a neglected topic (or, in this case, looking seriously at derided subject matter), Blaustein tries to do too much. He touches on the postwrestling life with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and detours briefly into the world of female wrestlers by interviewing the dynamic Chyna.
But Beyond the Mat is primarily about what drives men to continually climb in the ring to hurt each other – the action may be choreographed, Blaustein emphasizes, but the blood is real – and also looks at the institutions (such as the mighty World Wrestling Federation) that enable them to do so. Yet it’s the time that Blaustein spends with three wrestling legends – Terry Funk, Mick Foley (aka Mankind) and Jake "The Snake" Roberts – that makes Beyond the Mat so intriguing.
Fifty-something Funk flirts with retirement but, despite his family’s urging, he won’t forgo the thrill of performing, or the pain. Neither will Roberts. Once a superstar who sold out the Silverdome, the obese and drug-addled Snake now wrestles in near-obscurity. He’s a classic tragic figure, pursued by demons of his own making, yet still able to succinctly discuss "ring psychology."
Foley is the film’s most charismatic figure. A gregarious family man (who carefully reassures his young children that daddy’s not really getting hurt), Foley is known as a wrestler who can take – and give – extreme punishment. So Blaustein films not only a brutal match between Mankind and the Rock, but the Foley family’s horrified reactions from their ringside seats (the relationship between fathers and children turns out to be the film’s poignant undercurrent).
Wrestlers are "just like you and me," Blaustein concludes in Beyond the Mat, "except they’re really different." He’s so right.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.