Later today I will be cramped in a friend’s living room with a pile of fellow drunken weirdos shouting at a television screen as WrestleMania XXI unfolds live from Santa Clara, California. It’s an exciting, yet nerve-racking day to be a fan and a difficult feeling to describe to those who don’t share in it. I’m expecting a potent cocktail of camp & violence tonight (along with the usual variety of potent cocktails), the spirit of which is difficult to capture in words. It’s also difficult to capture on film. The allure of pro wrestling is an elusive, intoxicating, yet deeply flawed quality that’s better served experienced in a crowd than it is described on paper or depicted in film. Attempting to accurately capture pro wrestling’s appeal in a fictionalized setting and sell it back to its fans as a feature film has been a struggle for decades, a struggle that saw a significant uptick during the sport’s bloated spectacle heyday of the 1980s (as previously discussed on this site in our coverage of 1986’s Body Slam and 1989’s No Holds Barred). It’s a difficult task for several reasons, but not least of all because both the people making the films weren’t genuine fans of the sport themselves and because there’s a basic blending of reality & fantasy at play that’s entirely lost when a story is fully fictionalized.
Of the few 80s stabs at capturing this particular brand of lighting in a bottle I’ve seen so far, 1985’s Grunt! The Wrestling Movie was by far the most successful. A surprisingly funny mockumentary about the sport, Grunt! exemplifies both pro wrestling’s charms and (unintentionally) its crippling faults. You can tell the film was made by true fans of “sports entertainment” (as well as comedies like Airplane! and This is Spinal Tap). Grunt! captures both the camp and the violence of pro wrestling early and often (like in the opening scene when a competitor is comically decapitated during a match), but also has the good sense to lose itself to the action in the ring, knowing when to drop the mockumentary gimmick and “mark out” at the already-ridiculous-enough spectacle on display. It’s far from tastefully made and can at times be overwhelmingly corny, but those qualities make it all the more akin to the subject at hand.
Grunt! is a nerdy wrestling comedy made by wrestling-loving nerds, as is on full display when the director (as depicted in the film) explains, “Ever since I was a young child and I walked into my parents’ bedroom and my father said to me ‘Get out of here! We’re wrestling,’ frankly I’ve been fascinated by it.” That brand of juvenile sex humor isn’t the only thing the movie gets accurate (trust me, it’s accurate) about pro wrestling’s appeal. It also captures the chair shots, interfering managers, rings pelted with trash by booing crowds, snarling promos and shameless merchandising that surrounds the matches as well as the sport’s less savory features, like racial & cultural caricature and the embarrassing mockery of little people. Grunt! isn’t entirely purposeful in its documentation of the sport’s faults, but even when it’s incidental it’s fascinatingly accurate. For instance, the film’s absolutely horrendous rock & roll soundtrack is all too close to the reality of wrestling. Original songs that make declarations like “I’m only happy breaking bones”, “Do you wanna dance? Do you wanna body slam?”, and “Wrestling tonight! Everything is bigger than life!” are almost so bad that they’re downright punk and it’s that exact sentiment of unashamed cheese (along with the bone-crunching violence) that makes the sport appealing.
Grunt! isn’t a necessarily well-made movie, but it is one that serves its subject well. Its decision to tell its tale through mockumentary was downright brilliant in that it allowed the film to blend reality & fiction the same way pro wrestling does in the ring. There are some artistic touches to the way the actual matches are shot, especially in its disorienting reliance on a strobe light effect, but for the most part the film is a straightforwardly cheap comedy about a straightforwardly cheap sport. Much like the way Grunt! occasionally stops telling tawdry jokes and loses itself in the spirit of the in-the-ring action, there are times tonight when I will lose my grip on what’s “real” or what’s funny and lose myself in the actual consequences of WrestleMania XXXI. Even when the film’s jokes don’t land (though it’s surprising how often they do, considering its pedigree) it’s still incredible that they managed to capture that aspect of the sport on film, intentionally or not.