It’s hard to resist a film that has the word “wrasslin’” in the title. Actually it could be pretty easy. Depends on how much you like wrestling and wrasslin’. Like a great deal of men who grew up in the late 80’s/early 90s I was at one stage a die hard WWF fan. I stopped watching before it swapped the F for an E. We’re talking pretty full on fandom, I could have ended up like the guy in the “It’s real to me dammit!” video you can find on YouTube – if you haven’t seen it look it up… after you’ve read this though.
Even though I have long since stopped following the sport entertainment, and whenever I catch it now it’s filled with strange unfamiliar faces much like tuning back into a soap opera after being away for a while, I still enjoy documentaries about the subject. Wrestling it turns out is usually much more interesting behind-the-scenes then in the arena. Previous docs on the subject like Beyond The Mat and Forever Hardcore have shown the dark-side of the sport to profound effect. Seeing the physical and psychological damage the wrestlers inflict on themselves in the name of entertainment goes to show just how messed up this form of entertainment can be.
Memphis Heat takes a rather more rose-tinted view of it’s subject matter. Before the WWE monopolized the wrestling industry, promoters ran specific territories. One of the biggest of these territories was Memphis. Covering the period of the 1950s-70s Chad Schaffler’s film assembles many of the big name stars of the time along with promoters and managers to reminisce about this golden age. The reason I mention my own interest in wrestling is because it really helps to have at least some vague knowledge of it to find any basic enjoyment from the film. Whilst it’s interesting to see some familiar faces that would later turn up in the shiny world of WWF such as Jimmy Hart, Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair and Kamala the majority of the wrestlers are long retired. Many wrestlers are spoken about with hushed tones but with only a few clips to show their sporting prowess their impact doesn’t come across so much. Watching the old promo spots is quite amusing if only to see how ludicrous they were back then and have only become 100% more ridiculous. As with many documentaries like this, the most interesting parts come from finding out which athletes didn’t care for each other and they have no problem saying it.
Anyone who has seen Milos Forman’s biography of Andy Kaufman, Man On The Moon will remember that for a period Kaufman wrestled as a heel in Memphis. It is the films highlight to see the actual footage of the Kaufman/Jerry Lawler fight that is re-enacted in the Hollywood bio. We also get to see the performer butt heads with other wrestlers in promo shoots. It feels almost like bonus footage that should have been on a Man On The Moon DVD. Lawler in particular discusses at great length how Kaufman was one of the best things to ever happen to the sport whilst the more old-school, hardcore wrestlers see as nothing more than a gimmick that rung a final death bell before the advent of the WWF. Which is where the comes to a seemingly abrupt end. With the golden days of the Memphis scene dealt with it feels as though it should move on to the next chapter in a wider documentary, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.
The fact that this is a very niche subject for a niche crowd. Fans of the sport entertainment may find novelty and nostalgia in the promo clips and old talking heads but the story feels like it’s cut short just as it’s picking up. In short it will do little to convert wrestling skeptics.
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