Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ (2011)
Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Jimmy Hart, Sputnik Monroe and Jackie Fargo
||The Plot: Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ is a documentary focusing on the Memphis wrestling territory during the formidable years between the 1970s and the 1980s. Following a very large spectrum of wrestlers during this period, the film simply focuses on the Memphis area and the big names who were created there. These were the men who helped make this “scene” as rowdy as any wrestling territory in the world. The film details some of the biggest stars that younger fans may recognize, such as Jerry “The King” Lawler and Rocky Johnson, as well as some older wrestlers who had a huge impact on the industry, such as Sputnik Monroe and Jackie Fargo. These wrestlers lived a hard life, traveling over 100,000 miles per year cramped inside of small cars, but they brought to life personas that were much larger than mortal men could have ever dreamed to be.
For full-disclosure purposes, I am a wrestling fan. Like many, I find myself waning on personal interest from time to time, but I always seem to come back to this quick and action packed form of dramatic entertainment. I have a theory that Pro Wrestling, as it is seen today, is one of North America’s greatest contributions to the world of dramatic theater. Although numerous nations can lay claim to certain aspects of Pro Wrestling, the way that it came together is such a distinctly American concept. Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’
does a good job in explaining these early years of professional wrestling, but it started off ostensibly as a traveling circus act. Beginning as a carnival sideshow attraction where a big man would offer prizes for anyone who could stay in the ring with him for [X] number of minutes, the spectacle of this backwoods form of entertainment reaches into the heart of the American midwest. Sure, it wasn’t the most sophisticated form of entertainment, and it probably still shouldn’t be considered that, but it was a pure piece of Americana. Skip forward some years, and a strange integrated secret-society within the wrestling community has developed. A new language is created, and this new society consists of “Marks”, “Heels”, “Babyfaces”, “kayfabe stories” and “blading.” Although it will never achieve a great amount of notable respect, Pro Wrestling is one of the most fully fleshed out and uniquely protected forms of American entertainment. Memphis Heat
, the film we are looking at today, is a dedication to that protected artform, and a love letter written for a very select time and place that can never truly be duplicated.
Within the first few minutes of Memphis Heat
, director Chad Schaffler establishes everything he wants to show the audience about the Memphis territory through one brilliant montage. Taking a page out of the Not Quite Hollywood
playbook, this doesn’t attempt to be your everyday run-of-the-mill documentary. This is going to be a fun ride, and Schaffler doesn’t shy away from this fact. That isn’t to say Memphis Heat
is not informative, because it most assuredly is. The film is a blunt and focused look at the wrestling scene during this very intense period of time. We are thrown headfirst into this world with only a thudding rock & roll soundtrack, the sort of bluesy seventies-era southern rock music that brings to life the “good ol’ boy” mentality and expectations that one might have when discussing this topic. As a audience, we honestly don’t need to hear the forthcoming stories of hard partying in order to understand that this was a huge part of the lifestyle. Chad Schaffler fills his film to the brim with this sort of excitement, while also trading in insider information for the fans who are already well versed in this “scene.” Although one questions whether non-wrestling fans will be able to keep up with all of the insanity, the dizzying recollections and dramatic use of footage is enough to cause most viewers to revisit the film in the near future.
After watching the movie myself, my first instincts were to simply restart the entire thing all over again. Packed with names, places and information that I had never been privy to, as a wrestling fan I wanted to hear more about all of these characters and get to know more about them. A deep connection is made with the viewer, and I think that this is the strongest aspect of the movie. After Memphis Heat
is over, audiences feel as if they know these characters in a deep and personal way. The insider view of this very insular culture grabs the audience by its coattails. Even for those who aren’t intrigued by this world of men clad in tight shorts, the strange culture is enough to draw in any audience members. One of the strangest and most intriguing facets of this period was how serious wrestling had become, both with the audience and the wrestlers. Memphis was on fire every Monday it seems, and the pandemonium of public reactions are well detailed throughout Memphis Heat
. These wrestlers were stabbed, cut, punched, and even had babies thrown at them during riots! The wrestlers took their jobs just as serious, however, and it is apparent that these were men who valued their role as “tough guys.” Throughout the film, they even debate about who was tougher during their prime. In some ways, it is the “reality” of the situation, or the suspension of disbelief, that made such a period so very special in comparison to the much more tame version of Pro Wrestling that we find today.
As with any documentary focusing on the Pro Wrestling business, there are going to be a number of really great stories along the way. Memphis Heat
is not lacking in this department. The film details several periods in the Memphis Pro Wrestling business, and it gives opportunity to a number of big stars to talk about the world that they once inhabited. The largest section of the movie, however, has to be the time spent talking about Jerry “The King” Lawler. Best known today as one of the most well known color commentator that the WWE has ever had, within Memphis during the 70s/80s Jerry Lawler was a god amongst mortals. A man who didn’t fit the ideal mold of an athlete, he progressed into a brilliant performer. Memphis Heat
shows Lawler telling stories about his entry into the business with that same conviction that he is known for in modern entertainment. One of the most interesting aspects of the film has to be his recounting what happened between himself and Andy Kaufman. Although this story has been detailed elsewhere, I have never heard it told with such clarity and amusement as it is told in Memphis Heat
. Although it is only a small portion of the movie, this very popular story (that detailed a “is it real? is it fake?” series of run-ins between Jerry Lawler and comedian Andy Kaufman) stands out as one of the most entertaining segments of the film in my opinion. Amongst the most culturally responsible sequences, we are introduced to Sputnik Monroe, a heel wrestler who actually managed to do a lot of great things for Memphis’ African American community. At the height of segregation, he was a man who decided to step up to authority and demand fair treatment for the African American population in-and-around Memphis. Although it covers wrestling for the most part, this is most certainly a documentary that encapsulates a entire era.
The DVD is a absolute “must buy.” If you’re interested in the film, search out the DVD, because the special features are a extension of the movie in many ways. Featuring countless interviews, there are so many stories told on this disc that it can easily drain away a complete afternoon. There is more talk about Sputnik Monroe, a fun bit where Jerry Jarrett talks about naming Hulk Hogan, and a short package titled “The Galento Incident” that is so good it is a shame that it couldn’t make it into the movie. This “Galento Incident” details a backstage rivalry that sees a wrestler named Mario Galento enter into the ring in order to jump another wrestler, but in turn has his own eyeball bashed out of his head. Furthermore, he comes back later and attempts to kill Jerry Lawler with a straight razor! Thankfully, Lawler is saved by another wrestler who brought a gun into the auditorium. All of this simply shows the severity and insanity that this business inspired during this time and era.
I can’t honestly say whether I hold a bias for this film or not, but I can promise that it was a thoroughly entertaining experience. As lively and absorbing as Not Quite Hollywood
or Machete Maidens
, Memphis Heat
is a must-have documentary for wrestling nerds. For everyone else, it is a rock and roll look at a culture that audiences may not “get,” but afterward they will most certainly be left in awe by its sincerity and “wow” factor. I give it a four out of five, only on the basis that I fear it may be a bit insular for outsiders. For the most part, however, I find it hard to pick many faults out while discussing this movie. It teeters towards a five, and in time, I may even list it as that. Pick this one up! You can find it via the official website located at Memphis-heat.com