***Very Special Thanks to Courtney for Helping Me Obtain This Film***
Directed by Chad Schaffler, Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ is the story about the world of professional wrestling in Memphis, Tennessee from the 1950s to its hey-day in the 1970s and early 1980s. Featuring interviews with such luminaries as Jerry “The King” Lawler, “Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, Jerry Jarrett, “Soulman” Rocky Johnson, and various others. It’s a film that explores what made the Memphis scene so powerful and gathered large crowds before the era where the regional territories in American pro wrestling faded in the mid-1980s. Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ is a fun yet engrossing documentary from Chad Schaffler.
After the post-war era in the South where wrestling was considered a side-show act that eventually morphed into a local phenomenon through various promoters and its stars. The biggest star during the mid to late 1950s was Sputnik Monroe who played a bad guy but audiences loved him. He was also someone that local African-Americans loved since he was one of the early individuals to allow the venues in Memphis and parts of Tennessee to integrate for black and white audiences. Though it drew sell-out crowds in areas in the South, there wasn’t a lot of money coming in because of the promoters like Nick Gulas were cheating the wrestlers.
It wasn’t until Jerry Jarrett came in and made sure the wrestlers got paid during the early 70s when Jerry Lawler was becoming a major star for the local scene. While there were still veterans like Jackie Fargo, it was new stars like “Soulman” Rocky Johnson, Jimmy Valiant, “Superstar” Bill Dundee, and Lawler that kept the crowds going. While the demand was tough and led to the death of a few superstars including Lawler’s manager Sam Bass from a car crash. It was the hey-day for Memphis Wrestling where at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, shows would sell out by the thousands as Jarrett through his promotional and booking skills managed to get TV time for the superstar in the pre-cable days.
After breaking away with Gulas, Jarrett formed Continental Wrestling Association where things got really big for the local scene. Lawler was the main attraction as was Lawler’s new-manager “Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart which eventually cultivated into the legendary feud between Lawler and comedian Andy Kaufman in the early 1980s. While Jarrett admits to mixed feelings about Kaufman’s involvement, it did help expose pro wrestling to a national level as it was the peak of that era.
The film chronicles the rise of Memphis wrestling where it was a much more raucous style than a lot of more refined wrestling of the regional styles in other territories during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, there was also a bit of entertainment that made it believable for audiences to be invested in. Director Chad Schaffler does create something that is about that world where it was all about the spontaneity and the involvement of the fans to really root or hate the wrestlers they see. For those wrestlers, they had to play the part of these personas they created while revealing what it took to sell tickets. Particularly from the perspective of a few fans that revealed what it was like in the early years where kids would go to see midgets wrestle and it was a big draw back in the late 1950s.
There was a level of violence in some of the matches but only because it was to emphasize the brutality that an audience wanted to see. The documentary makes no bones about the fact that it’s a wrestling promotion that is willing to do what it can to sell tickets and make money. Yet, it worked out very well until the mid-1980s when Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Entertainment organization came in along with cable TV and such. Jarrett and Lawler revealed that was among the things that ended the Memphis territory where if it was around today, it would be destroyed.
The film features a lot of footage of the old weekend TV programs the CWA had as well as old home-movie footage of the wrestling events. It adds to this wild atmosphere of that period where it’s definitely not the WWE, in terms of its cleaner yet lavish presentation. Through the wonderful yet straightforward cutting of Pritchard Smith and Sean Faust’s sound design, the film keeps being very engaging as it reveals why it was such a great scene that attracted someone like Andy Kaufman.
The Region 1 DVD for the film’s release features an array of special features including its trailer, more interviews, outtakes, and rare wrestling clips. The outtakes features various interviews with the people that are profiled like Sputnik Munroe, Jimmy Hart, Jerry Lawler, Jimmy Valiant, Rocky Johnson, and many others where they each delve into little stories about life in the wrestling industry plus other little tidbits that are truly entertaining. Notably about the advice Dick Clark gave Hart about standing out with crowd or why showmanship is important from the words of Rocky Johnson. A lot of these small little outtakes reveal the world of wrestling and the stories that are so important to them.
The Studio Wrestling highlights features some rare clips that includes an interview with a young Hulk Hogan and more of Andy Kaufman’s feud with Jerry Lawler where Lawler interviews Kaufman on his own show. The wrestling clips feature some small bits of infamous wrestling matches from the early days of color TV to the 1980s that reveal the rough world of the Memphis wrestling scene in all of its glory. One big special featurette is the Galento incident about the notorious Mario Galento who was a big star in the 60s but also a very violent star who had issues with Jerry Jarrett when Jarrett took over the Memphis promotion. This leads to an attack from Galento to Jarrett during a match against Jerry Lawler where all hell broke loose leading to more trouble. The overall work on the DVD is something that hardcore pro wrestling fans must have.
Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ is an extraordinary yet entertaining documentary from Chad Schaffler. For pro wrestling fans, particularly the ones that grew up in the South, this is a film they have to see just to see what it was like back in those days when it was wilder and uninhibited. For those that wanted to know what was it like back then before the much grander days of WWE, this is a film about the old days of the regional area. While it might not appeal to audiences that aren’t familiar with pro wrestling, it is still a very well-made documentary with interviews that are very engaging. In the end, Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ is a top-notch documentary from Chad Schaffler.
© thevoid99 2011
Glad you enjoyed the film. I really think it plays well to both wrestling fans and the average film goer. I now have a huge appreciation for Jerry the King Lawler after watching the film. I did not realize how much he had accomplished for the sport.
p.s. Be sure to email a link to your review to the makers of the film. I am sure they would love hear what you thought of it.
I've been a fan of Jerry Lawler for years and this film made me love him even more as well as Jimmy Hart. I was also surprised at how much Jerry Jarrett contributed to wrestling despite my opinions towards TNA, which is pretty much fucking things up by letting Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff run things to the ground.
And I will do that. Thanks for reminding me.
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