Monday, September 10, 2012

Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin'
Director: Chad Schaffler
Released: 2011

Featured Talent 
Jim Blake, Jerry Calhoun, Guy Coffey, Bill Dundee, Jack Eaton, Jackie Fargo, Ron Hall, Jimmy Hart, Jerry Jarrett, Rocky Johnson, Jerry Lawler, Herman Mitchell (fan), Sputnik Monroe, Len Rossi, Jimmy Valiant, Buddy Wayne, Billy Wicks

The Good 
I first became of the ¨Memphis Heat¨ project in 2009 when one of the producers e-mailed me trying to track down footage. It sounded like a great project with excellent potential as it was such a colorful territory and so many of the key players were still alive (the inclusion of the now-deceased Sputnik Monroe really brings up the quality). While I was not able to help provide footage, I offered some names and some opinions. I was actually slow to buy this one, but did get it eventually. Amazingly only a couple week after buying it, the director and his wife met my own wife in an unlikely story of happenstance. Aside from enjoying "Lipstick & Dynamite," my wife has never had any interest or enjoyment in pro-wrestling. She brought that up and Chad Schaffler (who does documentaries and is not just some crazed pro-wrestling fan) expressed liking it and I can definitely see some of the same aesthetic elements here with the retro visual effects, rockabilly music and quick-cut editing. It is really a great approach that fits beautifully and is a great change of pace from the formulaic WWE documentaries. I've heard comparisons to "Heroes of World Class," which is fitting. While this has more appeal for its look and feel, "Heroes" has this beat in sheer length and depth (and has the nice WWE complimentary documentary). Neither is one I'd highly recommend to a non-fan (like my wife), although of the two, "Memphis Heat" has more mainstream appeal and parts of it (the Sputnik Monroe segment especially) could get over with anyone (and has as NPR did a story on him in 2001). "Heroes" also had the disadvantage of so many of the key players being dead (which fit into the story), "Memphis Heat" though had most of the key players, including Sputnik, Billy Wicks and Jackie Fargo. Just as Memphis was the last territory, this may be the last independent pro-wrestling documentary of this nature as WWE recently bought up the Mid-South library. Portland seems to have the same potential and could be a lot of fun with a similar approach.

The Bad 
By my estimation, there are three key strikes against this documentary that probably most "overview of a pro-wrestling company" would have. First and foremost is the absence of certain talent and inclusion of other talent. The most notable is Lance Russell, who was unavailable because of living in Florida, but would have added a whole other layer of insight. If you have ever heard an interview with him, you can imagine how much he could've added. Other stars like Dutch Mantell, Honky Tonk Man, Lanny Poffo, Jim Cornette, Robert Fuller, Bill Bowman and Joe Turner are names that come to mind as tremendous interviews who all had varying degrees of success and experience in Memphis (and/or Nashville). They certainly had budget limitations, so it seems they mainly focused on the biggest names or locals. Second is the choice of angles and stories, which is largely a matter of preference. Jerry Jarrett has always mildly resented the attention that the Lawler-Kaufmann angle is given in Memphis's overall history and here it is played up again and sort of plays into swansong of the territory along with the departure of Jimmy Hart (the third man in the storyline). I was not brought up on Memphis wrestling, so I cannot speak to the best angles through a young fan's eyes, only through looking back. The angles chosen seem to logically coincide with a narrative and with the personalities interviewed. Third is the 1985 cut-off, which is approximately a decade before Memphis went down. I can appreciate wanting to avoid that whole USWA era (1989-1997), but obviously some fans would feel that period was important. Overall, the knocks against "Memphis Heat" are few and the same types that any documentary of this nature have.

The Rating: *****