Grunt! The Wrestling Movie (1985)

wrasslin

three star

campstamp

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Body Slam (1986) and the Often Superfluous Nature of Bloated Spectacle in Pro Wrestling

wrasslin

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.

-Brandon Ledet