If there were ever a town that lived and breathed wrestling, it was Memphis.
The story of that town and its obsession with the squared circle is explored in the new documentary Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’. It’s an epic tale, starting with the days when guys would grapple with any and all comers in a traveling carnival, and going to the tops of Memphis’ glory days, when pro wrestling sold out 10,000 seats at the MidSouth Coliseum.
After a limited theatrical and festival run earlier this year, Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ , directed by Chad Schaffler, is available now on DVD from Off the Top Rope Productions, and comes replete with extras.
“If I would’ve body-slammed a guy in the old ring in Ellis Auditorium, that would’ve been the end of the match.” – Sputnik Monroe
The developments from the early days of pro wrestling to the modern era allow the film to present numerous pints of contrast, be it wrestlers vs. brawlers or the state of race relations in the South during the ’50s.
Per that last idea, you get the story of Sputnik Monroe opening up pro wrestling to black crowds, in addition to getting arrested for hanging out in a Beale Street “colored establishment.” It lends a dimension to the story beyond interpersonal rivalries and in-ring personae.
“I was meaner than a Texas rattlesnake and tougher’n a two-dollar steak. You’d better not mess with me, or you’re gonna get hurt.” – Jackie Fargo
Once the story moves into the late ’60s and early ’70s, Memphis Heat includes a lot more footage from pro wrestling matches and promos, and gets beyond the static images, which – while admittedly gorgeous – aren’t exactly conducive to a pulse-pounding story of fightin’ and gougin’ bruisers.
The heyday of the pro wrestling scene in Memphis certainly went hand-in-hand with their live 90-minute Saturday morning program, and the footage from that show makes up the bulk of the action in the documentary.
The background music rises in volume at the end of some segments to the point where it becomes difficult to hear what folks are saying. Thankfully, despite the advanced age of some of the guys involved, these fellows still have in-ring delivery and aren’t mush-mouthed or quietly-spoken. That being said, the thread of conversation or punchline of a joke gets occasionally lost.
The story of Jerry Lawler and Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart is the majority of the film’s second half, which pretty much ends when Hart gets hired by the WWF. The territory continued on for years after Wrestlenania and the rise of Vince McMahon‘s organization, but their glory years were over by the early ’80s.
The fact that Memphis was the proving ground for many future superstars is but a coda to this documentary, which makes Memphis Heat more of a historical document with niche appeal than something for modern-day fans of sports entertainment.
The extras on the DVD are great examples of promos and matches from the Memphis golden age, but presented out of context, they lack much of their impact. The matches from the Coliseum that are presented are unfortunately edited, cut up, and lacking any sense of storytelling.
High spots are impressive, yeah, but a really great match between a couple of talented guys is something you can watch without knowing anything, and it would’ve been great to see from some of these legends.