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The professional wrestling exposé business seemed to have become a bit of a cottage industry following the eighties heyday of the WWF (later WWE) and the rise of WCW, as we saw many of the heroes of those days struggle and fall, sometimes horribly, in real-life, unstaged battles with addiction and mental illness.  Autobiographical books by many of those affected, and cinematic dissertations, most notably 1999’s Beyond the Mat, brought us behind the scenes to reveal the underbelly of the ostensibly family-friendly façade of pro wrestling.

One subject featured in Beyond the Mat was Texas’ own Aurelian Smith, known by millions of fans as WWF/WWE legend, Jake “The Snake” Roberts.  Roberts burst onto the wrestling scene in the mid-eighties, with a bombastic neck-snapping move called the DDT, the coup de grâce of which was delivered by Roberts placing his fifteen-foot Burmese python, Damien, across the prone body of his victim.

There had never been anything like Roberts in terms of showmanship: Keeping with his reptilian theme, his promos were mesmerising.  Roberts would weave almost poetic threats of malice against his foes with such flair, the viewers were simultaneously confounded and hypnotised by his mysterious, serpentine persona.  When other fighters yelled, hooted and riffed about their in-ring superiority, Roberts’ voice barely went above a whisper, which only made people pay closer attention to his intelligent, intense patter.  He brought something different to the game and fans loved him for it.  His style would influence generations of wrestlers that came after him.  His departure in the early nineties from the company that put him on televison sets worldwide, began the start of a long fall for the superstar.

Beyond the Mat captured Roberts at a jaw-dropping low.  Overweight and still on the head trip of past glories while performing in a sad, independent show in the middle of nowhere, Roberts reels off an incredible succession of tales of his tortured childhood, his unending quest for his wrestler father’s approval, as well as his unhappy distance from his own children.  The final moment of Jake’s appearance in that film alleges he has smoked crack cocaine after a disappointing meeting with his eldest daughter.  Subsequent news stories of Roberts’ troubles had grown so increasingly bleak and disappointingly frequent, many of his fans worried that he was a lost cause and would wind up as yet another of the shocking number of pro wrestling tragedies. 

After such public exposure and disgrace, one wonders why Roberts would ever agree to another film that spotlighted his fall so keenly?

Somehow, director Steve Yu, a neophyte to filmmaking, got Roberts back in front of the camera.  Yu is an associate of another wrestling legend, Diamond Dallas Page, who is an all-too-rare example of a retired wrestler going on to lead a successful and happy second act in life.  Page is a noted fitness expert and motivational guru whose yoga program has garnered remarkable results, even transforming cases of disability previously thought hopeless.  Page took up the challenge of helping Roberts, his wrestling mentor, with more than a little apprehension, but a steely determination not to give up on his friend.

The Resurrection of Jake The Snake doesn’t show us anything particularly new; it’s the tried and true story of an addict who must come to terms with himself before he can move past his illness.  What captures viewers is its compelling subject; Roberts, the WWE superstar fallen far from grace and his pendulum-like swings between his real desire to get healthy and the conniving, wheedling lies and lows of an addict.  Roberts clearly has a flair for the dramatic in real life that’s served him well in the ring, but only compounds his inner demons and those are legion.  Repeated here are his stories of being unable to achieve the relationship with his father he wanted so badly and his fears about how that legacy has affected his dealing with his own eight children.  Roberts is still in love with being a wrestler and has a sense of what he achieved in his prime, but fears that those memories - as well as his documented drink and drug issues, both on tabloid websites and in Beyond the Mat - will be all he’ll have to show for his life.  He is a pathetic figure at the start of the film, vulnerable, bloated, weak and volatile.  The viewer’s question is whether he’ll make it through Page’s course of rehabilitation to achieve his self-aspired, but unlikely goal of appearing in the WWE’s Royal Rumble; an all-star event that brings out a legendary wrestler to join the ranks of the new kids for a night.  Yu is unflinching in his documentation and doesn’t allow Roberts or his drama - real or conjured - to run his movie.  This pays off in moments more fully fleshed and connected in than the bare bones of Beyond the Mat, like Roberts’ tentative but determined overtures to his grown children and their children.

The other lure of Resurrection is in the story of brotherhood amongst pro wrestlers.  We wouldn’t have a story without Dallas Page taking up the challenge of aiding Roberts, with nothing to gain from the experience other than simply helping his friend.  Like many of his ilk, Roberts is broke and uninsured.  The fierce love and determination Page displays even when he’s most tested by the regularly infuriating Roberts is remarkable.  Page later taking in another dear friend, Scott Hall, who first appears on camera in a wheelchair as a result of the wreck his body has become after years of alcoholism, has the audience questioning Page’s sanity to have two very large, body-proud addicts rehabilitating under the same roof.  Yet, somehow Page maintains an even keel, overseeing the men’s daily yoga routines and even cooking healthy meals for them and the slow and steady progress is inspiring.

Yu also brings in a series of wrestling superstars ranging from Ted DiBiase and Stone Cold Steve Austin, who fought beside Roberts, to Chris Jericho and Adam “Edge” Copeland, who grew up during Roberts’ heyday and were clearly influenced by his flamboyance.  Yu also gets candid commentary from Dustin “Goldust” Rhodes, like Roberts, a second generation wrestler with a showy, mysterious persona, who has struggled with his own drug issues.  The fighters give us insight to the hopelessness they felt watching another one of their own - whose talent they all clearly admired - fall down the well of addiction so common to professional wrestling.  The other fascinating aspect of support in the film is the fans’ love for a wrestler whose prime passed over two decades ago.  Roberts’ impact was such that a crowdfunding effort to help him pay for a shoulder surgery reaps thousands of dollars within hours.

Where Resurrection falters a bit is in presenting only Roberts’ physical rehabilitation, which is certainly compelling, but surely only part of the picture.  One of the film’s most shocking moments occurs early on when Roberts begins to tell about his childhood and how he was repeatedly raped by his stepmother.  Unfortunately, there is only one mention of a psychiatrist seeing Roberts and it’s presented more or less as a last resort when Roberts feels tempted to fall off the wagon, as opposed to regular ongoing therapy, which clearly is in need {In my interview with Roberts, he stated he sees a therapist weekly}.  The other discordant note is the hovering coterie of obvious wrestling fanboys all around Chez Page.  Not being told who they are or what their purpose is, the young men seem to have some kind of intern responsibilities, but it’s kind of uncomfortable that they are so clearly besotted and awed by the struggling fighter.  When Roberts, keeper of a curly mullet that didn’t look good in the eighties, decides to shed the “party in the back” as part of his rebirth and coming to terms with who he is right now, we witness one chubby-cheeked hanger-on whining about the haircut and stomping off in a strop when the locks hit the floor.  Later the same fan is seen posting up with Roberts in the ring, ostensibly giving him the thrill of a lifetime.  It felt odd and a bit amateurish to show people who idolise and coddle Roberts’ ring persona in such close and constant proximity to a man desperately trying to find the real him.

As I mentioned, The Resurrection of Jake The Snake doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it makes accessible and even inspiring the real story of a man in progress, working toward rehabilitation.  The heartfelt effort we’re shown behind that recovery, as well as the true love and brotherhood of the charismatic subjects behind it are the film’s true brilliance.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Oct 2nd, 2015

 

Click here for interviews with wrestling legends Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Director Steve Yu from The Resurrection Of Jake The Snake.

 

Click here for interviews with wrestling legends Diamond Dallas Page and Scott Hall from The Resurrection Of Jake The Snake.

 

 

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Photos

 

Exclusive Photos by L.M.D.

Stills Courtesy of Sundance Selects

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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