Pro wrestling is a form of escapism for me (and countless others), a hyperreality in which the eternal battle of Good vs Evil is played out weekly in a something that resembles a combination of a soap opera & a violent ballet. The violent physicality of that equation is of course a large part of wrestling’s appeal, but some promotions push that violence to a level that I can’t stomach as a fan. “Hardcore”, blood-soaked wrestling bouts often delve into some grotesque barbarism that’s difficult to stomach for someone much more interested in the sport as escapist entertainment than as source for macho street cred. Back in the late 90s & early 2000s, however, when pro wrestling was enjoying one of its peak moments of cultural success, there were countless youngsters who were way too into the bloodier aspects of “sports entertainment” to the point where they were risking their bodies & lives to be active participants.
The small-scale documentary The Backyard tries its best to capture the chilling phenomenon of early 00s teens attempting to recreate extreme, hardcore “death matches” in their own backyards. Each participant voices dreams of earning fame in the ECW or the WWF (now the WWE), but what they’re more or less doing instead is senselessly beating the shit out of each other with barbed wire, plywood, lightbulbs, thumbtacks, mouse traps, tables, chairs, and fire for modest Internet fame. It’s genuinely disgusting. These are young, overly confident kids with bedrooms covered in pro wrestling toys, posters, and bedsheets, growing up in a time before a publicly-traded WWE would repeatedly warn them not to try their stunts at home. There is some mimicry of the pro leagues’ catchphrases & over-the-top characters in the kids’ creative gimmicks that include some interesting concoctions like Bongo: The Pot-Smoking Monster & A.D.D. Dave, but mostly the kids are trying to make a name for themselves by trading VHS tapes of their most brutal stunts over the Internet & local cable access television.
To be fair, not all backyard promotions covered in the documentary are entirely grotesque. There’s a pair of brothers who kinda cutely chokeslam their mother onto mattresses & create barbed wire covered plywood gauntlets in the middle of the desert to entertain a small handful of friends. An upstate New York promotion is a world away from the brutal chair & lightbulb smashings and even includes moral support & spectatorship from the youngsters’ parents & teachers. Then there’s (the true star of the show) The Lizard, a charismatic young father with some legitimate athletic talent & screen presence, who’s mildly concerned for his own safety at least for his young daughter’s sake. There’s plenty of darker personalities mucking up any unintended wholesomeness, however, including an especially gruesome crew of young juggalos who liken their violent wrestling habits to the “fun” of “gaybashing” & a heartless 17 year old promoter who takes advantage of his young employees & somewhat ironically calls himself the “Vince McMahon of backyard wrestling”. Most of the kids profiled here are generally likeable & interesting as subjects, though, especially The Lizard & a kid named Scar who uses hardcore wrestling as a form of therapy to help himself emotionally recover from a childhood spent under the knife due to liver complications.
There are very few voices of reason included here; The Backyard mostly allows its hubris-mad interviewees to voice their dreams without consequence or ridicule. Pro wrestling legend Rob Van Dam is the only authority figure with any clout and he downplays what happens in backyard promotions as worlds away from what he does for a living. He encourages the kids to treat wrestling like any other professional trade & that “You have to go to wrestling school” if you truly want to make it. Besides RVD’s entirely sensible pleas for logic, there’s really only one other voice of dissent, a contestant’s apoplectic mother who cries things like “Not the thumbtacks! Not the thumbtacks!”, but her contribution is much more amusing than it is effective.
Moralizing is mostly absent from The Backyard‘s horror show of teens putting themselves in needless danger & the documentary smartly instead lets the disturbing facts speak for themselves. A lot of the film’s brutality is difficult to watch, but there’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating historical document of a very specific DIY pro wrestling culture that may still exist, but is certainly less prevalent than it once was. I may not have enjoyed every minute of the film as entertainment (due to my personal squeamishness for real-life gore), but it made strong enough of an impression overall that I’m considering making room for it on my list of all time favorite pro wrestling documentaries.