Earlier this week, Barbed Wire City: The Unauthorized Story Of Extreme Championship Wrestling, an independent ECW documentary by Kevin Kiernan and John Philapavage was finally released on DVD and made available to their Kickstarter funders that paid for a video download.
You may be wondering whether yet another ECW documentary was really necessary, given the superb The Rise and Fall of ECW DVD produced by WWE with Paul Heyman's help in 2004 and the alternative hotchpotch perspective given by the Forever Hardcore DVD the year after that was Jeremy Borash's brainchild.
After watching the film, my answer would be a resounding yes, as unlike previous attempts to cover the history of ECW, it doesn't fall into the trap of overly romanticizing the company, whilst never becoming a mean spirited burial. They cover most of the good, the bad and the ugly in the two hours at their disposal and the conclusions reached are left for the audience to decide.
By using a combination of RF Video footage of ECW house shows and conventions, interviews with ECW wrestlers that took place in the immediate aftermath of the promotion going out of business, and more recent conversations taken from behind the scenes of Shane Douglas's disastrous Extreme Reunion event a year ago, you see the complete evolution of performers like Axl Rotten (still wrestling despite having Bell's Palsy) and Balls Mahoney from two guys that were taking insane risks to live the dream of being a wrestling star into a pair of broken down, tortured old warriors.
Without the new material, it would have been far too easy for ECW fans to forget the human cost involved in producing their envelope pushing entertainment. Many still will, as they won't want to open their eyes and smell the coffee, instead allowing their take home message to be rose-tinted nostalgia.
Other thoughts on the movie:
- By interviewing all the big wrestling news reporters of the time, Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Paul Heyman's levelheaded confidant), Wade Keller and Bruce Mitchell of the Pro Wrestling Torch (outspoken critics of ECW's excesses), Jason Powell of prowrestling.net (formerly of the Torch, not quite as hardline as his colleagues were), and Dave Scherer and Mike Johnson of PWInsider.com (bordering on fanboys for the product), the end result is a very balanced perspective of the business reasons for why ECW failed. Arguably these talking heads are used too much, but they add a lot of behind the scenes insight that the performers wouldn't fully be aware of.
- A great job is done of explaining the humble beginnings of the promotion, how an ambitious Tod Gordon brought in veteran creative mind Eddie Gilbert to be his booker and how Hot Stuff's personal demons led to his protégé Paul Heyman quickly being given the position instead.
- You also get a complete picture of Heyman as a person and a promoter. In the past, the obvious positives have been emphasized while the negatives often get excused or ignored. His charisma and power led to many of his wrestlers falling completely under his spell and getting trapped in an abusive relationship where they were encouraged to do dangerous stunts for pretty low pay and the intoxicating crowd pop. When he started running out of cash, he strung his talent along with a stream of misinformation whilst he gave them checks that would bounce more often than not. The performers were stuck in a catch-22 situation where they hated his guts, but had to suck up to him because they knew he was on the WWF's good side. Heyman knew the company was done for several months before he officially filed for bankruptcy, but he allowed his followers to believe that he could still pull out another rabbit out of his magic hat throughout this period and left them to find out the news on the web. The consequence of this cruel scam was a lot of wrecked lives with the worst affected being left suicidal.
- The same goes with the treatment of ECW's rabid, passionate fan base. Their dark side, their uncaring, bloodthirsty nature and how some in the audience may not have been fully satisfied until they saw someone die in the ring isn't just laughed off as harmless fun. On the other hand, these toxic tendencies were exploited by The Dudleys, who pushed the fans' buttons in a bullying, crude manner to generate unsafe heat and cause near riots (well, most of the time, as sometimes crowd violence did happen due to the crazy environment that had been created), so both sides were to blame for going too far at times.
- The Sandman sadly went on a dated rant (possibly because it was filmed in 2001) about what's so bad with hitting someone over the head with a chair, repeating similar sentiments to his ECW alumni Raven and Steve Corino in the recent past who also haven't wised up yet.
- The horrific Mass Transit incident where New Jack took liberties with 17 year old last minute replacement Eric Kulas (who lied about his age to get booked) by blading him deeply almost from ear to ear, leaving him needing 50 stitches to close the cut, thankfully isn't avoided and it's fascinating to see the divergence in opinions from the wrestlers themselves and the reporters on the topic. The only drawback was that no still pictures of this disgusting scene were included in the background while this topic was being discussed, so viewers who weren't already fully aware of this story wouldn't truly grasp its severity.
- The importance of the Internet, tape trading and fan conventions in cultivating ECW's grassroots popularity is given due credit. Moreover, hardcore ECW fan Tony Lewis is credited for saving their pay-per-view aspirations by organizing a letter writing campaign to Request TV and Viewer's Choice after those companies cancelled carrying ECW's first PPV when they heard about New Jack's bloodletting of a minor.
- My only criticism of the documentary is that some subjects were glossed over and perhaps should have been explored in greater detail, such as the misogyny and violence against women that pervaded ECW storylines, ECW's double cross of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in 1994, the company's working agreements with both WCW and the WWF at various points in its history, Tod Gordon's strange falling out with Paul Heyman in 1997, etc.