Like most adults find themselves doing from time to time, I spent this past Friday night yelling myself hoarse at sweaty, costumed men as they wrestled each other in a middle school gymnasium. It was my first exposure to New Orleans’ own pro wrestling promotion Wildkat Sports, at an event called Wildkat Strikes Back. Sitting in a cramped, hot gymnasium with a crowd that ranged from screeching children to their elderly grandparents to hardcore, middle-aged wrestling nerds to roving gangs of way-out-of-place crust punks was a welcome alternative to the way I usually enjoy the sport: in the cold, TV-provided glow of living rooms. There was an intense, communal vibe in that gym that can be lacking in the larger, televised promotions and it made me realize just how much of a spectacle the sport can be on its own merit. When stripped down to its bare bones (sans the slapstick comedy sketches, celebrity cameos, pyrotechnics and half-baked stunts that can exhaust a more bloated program), pro wrestling is still entertaining in a genuine, visceral way.
Sometime in mid-80s pro wrestling had reached its most bloated point in history. With the rise of Hulkamania, the undeniably potent likeability of Andre the Giant, and the cutthroat business-sense of juggernaut promoter Vince McMahon, WWE (then WWF) reached the pinnacle of its cultural dominance when WrestleMania III broke the all-time attendance record of an in-door sporting event with more than 93,000 fans present in the stands (a record that still holds today). The level of sheer spectacle that accompanies events like WrestleMania is as disparate from the brand of pro wrestling you’d see at events like Wildkat Strikes Back as the difference in size of their respective crowds, but that spectacle isn’t exactly necessary to make “sports entertainment” . . . entertaining.
Arriving just a year before that record-breaking crowd at WrestleMania III (and a whole three years before WWE got into the film business themselves with No Holds Barred), the 1986 film Body Slam similarly gets confused about what makes pro wrestling entertaining, putting more value into the spectacle surrounding the sport than the sport itself. In the film’s laughably convoluted plot (it is a comedy, after all) rock ‘n’ roll manager Harry Smilac is struggling to make it with only one client under his wing (a band called KICKS) when he fortunately expands his roster by signing on pro wrestler “Quick” Rick Roberts (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), mistakenly assuming that he is a musical act. Despite his initial repugnance toward pro wrestling, Smilac discovers that there’s good money in the sport and pretty much dives head first into the wrestling business until he (late in the film) has the brilliant idea of combining KICKS & Quick Rick’s talents and voila! Smilac gives birth to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Wrestling”. The spectacle of a live rock band playing while sports entertainers perform is treated here like the discovery of the cure for cancer. Smilac is lauded as a genius.
In Body Slam’s logic, Smilac not only improves pro wrestling with this invention, but he also improves rock ‘n’ roll. These are two forms of art that don’t need improvement. Both rock and wrestling are perfectly appealing when reduced to their most basic parts; they don’t need 80s-tinged grandstanding to make them worthwhile. It’s fitting, then, that the band Smilac manages, KICKS, is an obvious stand-in for the band KISS, who are no strangers to using theatrics & merchandising to distract audiences from their okay-at-best brand of rock ‘n’ roll. In the movie’s logic, KICKS’ songs (as well as their deep love of pyrotechnics) are not only a draw for the crowd, but they also give the wrestlers (well, the faces at least) strength to overpower their opponents. They’re breathing life into a far-from-dead brand of entertainment that really didn’t need their help in the first place.
Of course, Body Slam is a silly trifle of a film that shouldn’t be judged too harshly about what it has to say about pro wrestling as a sport, because it doesn’t have too much to say about anything at all, much less wrestling. However, the film does have some charms as a campy delight. The 80s cheese is thick enough to choke you as early as the opening scene, which features Smilac hanging out of a convertible, hair slicked back, hitting on bikini babes by showing off his gigantic car phone. There’s also some corny humor in exchanges like when a friend asks Smilac, “What are you gonna do, Harry?” and he responds “What I always do: manage!” The campy appeal of the rock ‘n’ roll wrestling plot doesn’t really get going until the last third of the film, but the montages are so worth it, especially the one that’s accompanied by the Body Slam theme song. There’s also, of course, a wide range of 80s wresters to gawk at here. Besides the aforementioned Roddy Piper, the film includes “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, “Captain” Lou Albano, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, “The Barbarian” Sione Vailahi, and several members of the Samoan Anoaʻi family (including Roman Reigns’ father Sika), among others. Besides the innate fun of seeing them all in a feature film, they’re also more or less abysmal at acting, which helps keep the mood light. With all of this 80s-specific cheese flying around, the inclusion of always-welcome Billy Barty & Charles Nelson Reilly is somehow just icing on the cake.
It’s not a great movie, but Body Slam is effective as a time capsule of the 80s as an era of corny comedies, show-off musicians, and the birth of bloated spectacle in wrestling. The time capsule aspect goes both ways, though, both funny in its quaintly out-of-date aesthetic and disturbing in its penchant for finding cheap humor in topics like misogyny, racial caricature, cross-dressing and pedophilia. Those offenses aside, there are moments late in the film when they finally get the basic appeal of pro wrestling down when during a rock ‘n’ roll wrestling performance the band KICKS is attacked by a group of heels and the whole show devolves into chaos. There’s also a particularly bloody street fight match involving chains that feels pretty close to what a lot of hardcore fans are looking for in the sport, despite an announcer’s exclamation that “This is setting wrestling back 1000 years!”
When considered from the perspective of an enterprising showman (like a Harry Smilac or an Eric Bischoff), Body Slam is an interesting case study of what outsiders often get wrong in their assumptions about what makes pro wrestling entertaining. I’m not saying that local promotions like Wildkat Sports are inherently better than their televised, large scale, rock ‘n’ roll wrestling competitors; I’ll still be eagerly watching all 4 bloated-spectacle hours of WrestleMania XXXI this coming Sunday. I’m just saying that the sport is entertaining enough on its own merit, even when stripped of the fireworks, the KISS-knockoffs, and the David Arquettes. There’s a basic appeal to its violence & pageantry that’s evident whether you’re in a middle school gym with 1,000 sweaty nerds or an outrageously packed stadium of 90,000 rabid fans. The bloated spectacle is delicious lagniappe at its best and unnecessarily excessive at its worst. In Body Slam, it’s mostly the latter, though the film argues otherwise.