‘Bodyslam’ a Real Doc About Fake Wrestling

Photo by Luke Keyes. The bunch of Bananas, before things went bad.
Photo by Luke Keyes. The bunch of Bananas, before things went bad.

BY SEAN EGAN | An open secret, well-known amongst aficionados, the kayfabe nature of professional wrestling is integral to its appeal. As a pre-planned, written and rehearsed spectacle, it’s quite unlike anything else out there — mixing convoluted soapy plots, over-the-top characters and the raw (pun intended) appeal of the heightened levels of athletic prowess choreographed and on display in the ring.

While the good folks at Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestling (SSP to fans) may not hit quite the same heights of athleticism as their big-time counterparts, they certainly manage to ratchet up the absurdity (and grime factor) exponentially. Holding their events in local bars, armed with outrageous costumes and obscenities and welcoming an onslaught of beer cans, the SSP accumulated a devoted fan base in Seattle. Inspired by the theatrical spectacle offered by pro-wrestling and bonded by their status as outsiders looking for like-minded individuals, SSP fans and crew are a hilarious and undeniably entertaining bunch.

And what a group of characters it is. The de-facto spokesman of the wrestling group, and hero of the film, is one Josh Black (aka Ronald McFondle). Donning sloppily caked on grease paint and a grody wig/jumpsuit combo, McFondle is a gleefully profane parody of the iconic fast-food mascot. Just as entertaining is Eddie Van Glam, a mild-mannered hairdresser out of the ring, but a flamboyant, burlesque dancer/fighter inside of it. These men and their compatriots in the ring have a tight bond, and formed a community based on the unifying power of performance and wrestling — welcoming the outcasts and those who felt alone unconditionally. They have an easygoing charm and rapport that makes them fun to watch both in and out of costume.

The one figure standing in opposition to this close-knit group is The Banana, a former wrestler felt wronged by the SSP. Like all the best villains, The Banana, or Paul Richards, is something of a tragic figure. Spending his childhood as the neglected son of an addict, Paul sought solace in the world of wrestling as a young boy. After many years of familial struggle, and his mother’s eventual death, Richards grew up to be a straight-edge loner — keeping sober and to himself for years, before joining SSP. The SSP, not quite jibing with Paul’s standoffish attitude, decided to cast him as the most absurd character they could conceive of — The Banana.

Paul, refusing to be the butt of an absurdist joke, played the character straight-faced, much to the chagrin of the crowd and the SSP. Eventually, Paul was edged out of the role by his sidekick, the Second Banana, and left wrestling. Quietly spiteful, Paul calls the local government to crackdown on SSP — who considers it a sporting event to be reregulated accordingly, rather than the absurdist, theatrical performance art it so clearly is.

Unjustly shut down, McFondle himself, Josh Black and manager/promoter Kiwanis Adonis spearhead an effort to get legit — be that through hiring lawyers, talking to cops, or lobbying at the Washington State Legislature itself. This development allows the film to gradually mutate from a straightforward portrait of a unique and passionate community of lovable outcasts to something of a legal drama. “Taking on city hall,” as it were, adds a welcome bit of intellectual depth that goes along nicely with its already-entertaining crowd-pleasing underdog story, raising questions about what qualifies as art and performance, and touching upon issues of free speech and artistic expression.

In “Bodyslam,” first-time feature directors Ryan Harvie and John Paul Hortsmann have constructed a documentary just as funny and entertaining as any you’re likely to see — thanks in no small part to the wealth of gonzo performance footage and colorful talking heads they’ve assembled. Their direction possesses a playful lightness of touch that suits the freewheeling film well, while the way in which it takes its subjects passions and emotions seriously prevent it from ever feeling too slight. “Bodyslam,” then, is a humorous and heartfelt look into a subculture most would never know about — and could inspire more adventurous viewers to grab a tallboy and some spandex to start their own semi-pro journey.

Runtime: 85

Directed by Ryan Harvie and John Paul Horstmann

Sun., 4/19, 9:45pm & Wed., 4/22, 6:00pm at Regal Cinemas Battery Park (102 North End Ave. at Vesey St.)

Tickets: $18 (plus $3.50 reservation fee)
Info: tribecafilm.com/festival or 646-502-5296