Top V: Wrestling Documentaries For Fans (and Non-Fans)

Hello there readers.

Recently, a number of you have stopped by our little corner of the inter-webs, perhaps intrigued by our recent posts about politics. Like this one on potential WWE Hall of Famers in politics. Or this one on Linda McMahon. Well, we are glad you stopped by and we look forward to you coming back for our 5,000 word treatise on American-Asian trade policy.

But in the meantime, I want to take a break away from politics (well, sorta, as you'll see), and speak to those of you who may have been surprised to read such trenchant analysis of the Linda McMahon appointment on a wrestling website. Yes, you. Don't leave us just yet!

So, I have a couple questions for you: do you like movies? You do! Great! Hey, do you like documentaries? You do! Terrific!

Given that we write about shameful, shameful wrestling here, I thought it might not be a bad idea to give readers my Top V list of the best wrestling documentaries out there for fans of wrasslin' and for non-fans. It is my hope that you'll find these docs interesting and you can appreciate a little bit of our weird fascination with this performance art.

And if not, you can blame Rick.

5) CM Punk: Best in the World (2012)

I've recently gone on record advocating that we wrestling fans need to take a hard look at our support of the WWE. And I mean that. But it's also difficult to be a wrestling fan when the WWE holds a virtual monopoly on the industry, including the production of documentaries. Many of these - and in a future post I'll address the most egregious ones - become revisionist hatchet jobs that make Vince McMahon's company heroic.

There are a few exceptions to this, and in my mind the best one is CM Punk: Best in the World. What's unique about this documentary is not only how the company allowed footage from a rival company (Ring of Honor) to be inserted into the film, but also how honest they allow Punk to be here. He complains about his frustration with management, his booking status, and the work ethic of other wrestlers. Additionally, he's allowed to voice his own hostility toward his family (Punk did not have the greatest of upbringings and he does not shy away from that here).

For non-wrestling fans, I think this will be appealing because of not just Punk's story, but his humanity. He was arguably the most complex wrestling star of the last 20 years and that's on full display here. If one has the WWE Network, this documentary is still available (but I'm not sure if it's been edited as the WWE has a tendency to edit its material through that service).

4) I'm From Hollywood (1989)

There's been a long intersection of professional wrestling and other forms of entertainment - see my post here - but the best example of this is the Jerry Lawler and Andy Kaufman feud in Memphis wrestling during the early 1980s. I'm From Hollywood chronicles that story, and features a number of Kaufman's co-stars from various Hollywood projects including Tony Danza and Marilu Henner (among others), and is a fascinating look at one of the most surreal stories in wrestling and entertainment history. Perhaps the best aspect of these interviews is how the celebrities try and rationalize Kaufman's behavior -- and many of them struggle mightily to do so.

Even better is how the documentary incorporates archival footage from Memphis wrestling from the era and demonstrates how hated Kaufman by fans was in the territory (think Trump supporters, but madder). Perhaps even better than that is the dedication to kayfabe from the performers and interviewees, especially Jerry Lawler, in their interviews. There's a dedication to the performance and the "reality" of wrestling here that is just not seen in other documentaries. Everyone seems in on the act, and that's very interesting to see.

The documentary is available on YouTube in segments, but you can also find cheap DVD copies of the film easily online.

3) ESPN Docs on Scott Hall and the Von Erichs

The two shortest documentaries on here - and I know I'm cheating a bit by including them both - these two ESPN produced films illustrate the struggles and tragedies of Scott Hall, nee Razor Ramon during his first WWE run, and the Von Erich family who dominated WCCW wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of the constants of professional wrestling is that the wrestlers suffer a tremendous amount of damage to their bodies and souls for a variety of reasons. Injuries. Drug and alcohol abuse. Alienation. The two stories presented here show how these two figures (and their families) endured almost unbelievable anguish. Thankfully, both function as redemption stories for the men as they both seem at peace.

Both are streaming on YouTube and I've included links to them here.

2) Lipstick and Dynamite (2004)

For a long time, women's wrestling has been treated far less seriously than it should have been by - oh, I don't know - the WWE. A lot of that is because of the rampant misogyny of the Attitude Era and the company's belief that women wrestlers should be more about looks than skill.

But the history of women's professional wrestling is detailed quite well in this documentary about the pioneers of the art who made names for themselves after the Second World War.  Directed by Ruth Leitman, the film features interviews with The Fabulous Moolah, Mae Young, Gladys Gillem, and Ida Mae Martinez, and others. Like Beyond the Mat, this film illustrates how difficult life was for many of these wrestlers before, during, and after their lives in the ring. But the film also shows how many of the women harbor lingering animosity toward some of their colleagues, especially Moolah and Young for continuing to be involved with the WWE and its derogatory story-lines

I believe this is available streaming on Amazon Prime, if you're interested. And I recently discussed this film on an episode of the Random Tandem podcast.

1) Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998)

This was a hard number 1, but I went with Paul Jay's documentary over Beyond the Mat for a few reasons here. Primarily, I think this documentary serves as a fascinating historical document, illustrating the set-up to Hart's defection to WCW and the infamous Montreal Screw-job - which is arguably the biggest wrestling moment of the last 30 years.

As a wrestling fan, I used to  be lukewarm on Hart, but I've developed a much more positive view of his career - especially his "Anti-USA" persona around the time of his documentary. But I also see him as an antidote to the crassness of the soon-to-be Attitude Era which, as Rick noted in a recent piece, wasn't all that great per se.

I also think this would appeal to non-wrestling fans because it's such a fascinating story. People understand the falsity of wrestling, but the blurring of reality here makes for a compelling narrative. In addition, Hart is a compelling figure in this documentary: he's both steadfast in his beliefs, but perhaps also a bit naive about the larger picture.

Available on YouTube and a number of other places.

So that's it! My Top V of wrestling documentaries for non-fans and fans alike! Hate my list? Again, blame Rick.

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