18 Sep

Well you know, Mean Gene… Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’.

Posted by Bryan White | Sunday September 18, 2011 | Reviews

Memphis Heat ReviewYou probably don’t know this because I haven’t made much noise about it since I first launched the site back in 2007 but the slogan of this site – a sort of requirement for a WordPress blog – is: A celebration of cheap thrills. I’m known for my criticism on the horror genre but I’m actually all over the map in terms of what I deem cheap thrills. This is evident in my occasional feature of martial arts, sex comedies and science fiction. If it’s pulpy and low brow (and sometimes high brow), it’ll probably appeal to me in some way. When it comes to professional wrestling, though, you just don’t get thrills any cheaper. Don’t misunderstand me, either. I don’t mean that in some kind of pejorative sense. I love pro wrestling! My tastes in the sweet science tend to run in international flavors, though. I’m more a Mexican Lucha Libre and Japanese Puroresu fan. Both are high flying and extremely innovative in terms of showmanship in the ring. They don’t do heels and faces (bad guys and good guys, respectively) quite like Americans do but Americans don’t do the top rope acrobatics quite like the Japanese and the Mexicans, so it’s an even trade depending on what facet of the ring you like.

Another thing about pro wrestling that I love so much is that it has a rich folk history associated with it. Even though it’s not really a sport in the traditional sense, pro wrestling is a sport that has always belonged to the people, you know? It has humble (and shifty) beginnings in the traveling carnival circuits of the late 1800’s and early 20th century and then shed its nomadic origins, taking root in communities that rabidly supported its local heroes while turning out its colorful local villains. It remained this way for decades until WWF (now the WWE) started signing the best and brightest from promotions around the country that local wrestling promotions began to collapse and it transformed into a major global entertainment empire. Of all the regional promotions out there, none were as colorful or as massively popular as the wrestling culture of Memphis, Tennessee. Pro wrestling has always been a loud-mouth, garish event but the folks of Memphis, Tennessee took it to a whole new level and paved the way for the flashy and ridiculous antics which constitute professional wrestling today. Memphis Heat documents this unique legacy in the words of the people who lived it.

Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ starts its tale with a brief history of pro wrestling’s carnie origins as seriously conditioned tough guys issued  a challenge to the yokels of whatever town the carnival happened to be in. If you could beat the carnival champ, you could be paid cash money. Wrestling worked this way commonly until World War 2 ended and regional promotions sprung up around the country. Mid-South Wrestling is the promotion that this documentary puts the spotlight on and over the course of its running time, we get an often hilarious look into the workings of a shifty low budget promotion that eventually becomes the envy of promotions all over the country. We get a good look at the controversy surrounding wrestler Sputnik Monroe who integrated the wrestling venues when he threatened not to appear in one of the epic battles he was known for with the heroic babyface, Billy Wicks, until black patrons were allowed to sit in whatever seat they wanted. We get a look at the split from the original promotion when promoter Jerry Jarret took most of the wrestlers with him and established Memphis wrestling as a major force of local television programming. Jerry “The King” Lawler is introduced and his legendary feud with comedian and wrestling fan Andy Kaufman is spotlighted, which propelled Memphis wrestling even further into the public eye. To close out the show, Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart is highlighted as his extremely colorful contributions to the medium are illustrated as of paramount importance before he and most of the promotion’s brigtest stars are bought up by the WWF and the glory days of the promotions ended.

Like many recent documentaries such as The Kid Stays in the Picture and Not Quite Hollywood, Memphis Heat is an extremely kinetic documentary that aims to be as exciting and colorful as its source material. To be any other way would be disingenuous and so it moves at a breakneck pace telling the story in its own words exclusively from the mouths of the people who were there inside and outside of the ring. Featured in the doc is Jimmy Hart, who is as infectious and awesome in a sober setting as he is when ringside. Jerry Lawler turns up, as does his rival Bill Dundee. A tattoo covered “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant shows up and throws around the common language of the sport (brother) and the one and only Billy Wicks is there to talk about his days opposite the “villainous” Sputnik Monroe who also turns up in archival interviews as he died in 2006. Rocky Johnson, the first black champion of the southern promotion (also The Rock’s dad) is in there to offer his perspective. The list goes on and on. Everyone in this documentary has something completely fascinating to say about the subject and everyone is exactly as you hoped they would be. These guys lived the wrestling lifestyle and it’s clear that it takes a certain kind of guy to live and die by this profession.

Never boring, always on point, Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ is a love letter to sports entertainment. If you, like me, spent far more of your of childhood (and adult life) cheering on overactors in tight spandex undies as they landed elbow drop finishing moves forcing their opponent to leave town before exiting the venue with their defeated opponent’s valet on their arm, you’re probably going to love this. Memphis was ground zero for what we know as the modern style of professional wrestling. It’s low brow, it’s loud and it’s in deeply poor taste but we wouldn’t have it any other way. This is the point where pro wrestling went from dubious to flat-out fraudulent but it managed to get more and more awesome with every pile driver, suplex and arm bar. This documentary gets the Cinema Suicide ‘Suicidal Cheap Thrills’ seal of approval.

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