For over a year, fans eagerly anticipated Ric Flair’s 30 For 30 documentary “Nature Boy.” It was exceedingly well-received, but now, one week later, it’s time to ask where it stands in the pantheon of pro wrestling documentaries.
Please note that this list is specifically for documentaries produced outside of WWE. There are many, many wonderful WWE documentaries out there, from WWE 24 on the Network to the documentary features produced for DVD sets. One day we’ll rank all of those, but for now, those are excluded from this list.
I’m From Hollywood: Best viewed as a companion piece to the experimental film My Breakfast With Blassie, the complete story of Andy Kaufman’s Memphis wrestling career is indispensable, and came extremely close to making the top five. If you haven’t seen it, you should definitely take the time.
The Resurrection of Jake the Snake: Jake Roberts was my first favorite wrestler, and this sequel of sorts to the Hall of Famer’s tragic rock bottom in Beyond the Mat offers an uplifting look at the next stage in his life.
The Price of Fame: This new documentary about Ted DiBiase manages to deftly walk a tightrope that few others have been able to manage. It’s a Christian film, about Christians and redemption, without ever overtly or overly evangelizing. The film features some very poignant scenes with DiBiase and his sons, and paints a good portrait of a man who has many regrets, but has made his peace with them.
Lipstick and Dynamite: Not a perfect documentary, it does shine a light on the often-ignored women’s wrestling scene stretching from the 1940s to the 1970s. The 2004 film is good for what it is, but is scattershot and disjointed, continually pulling its own focus. Also, portraying Fabulous Moolah as a sympathetic character and letting her have the last word of “the people who are bitter didn’t listen to my advice” is some reeeeaaaaal sinister stuff that aged extremely poorly.
5. Gaea Girls
Probably the least-seen documentary on this entire list, it’s a film that deserves a far, far wider audience. This look inside GAEA Japan and their wrestling dojo is full of quiet and stillness unusual for a pro wrestling film, and also has more breathtaking brutality than almost any other documentary you can imagine. The filmmaker wept as Takeuchi was brutalized by Chigusa Nagayo for her final test before turning pro.
This is a documentary that at no point speaks down to its audience or over-explains the bizarre world and sorority of joshi. It lets the beauty and violence of pro wrestling speak for itself and is the purest sports documentary of the sport ever made. If Werner Herzog made a pro wrestling documentary, it would be this movie.
4. Nature Boy
It should come as no surprise that Flair’s 30 For 30 was impeccably made. It took years to finalize the cut, and the interview segments (including with a never-more-honest Flair) interspersed with spot-on animation made it compelling throughout, even for those who know the Nature Boy’s story inside and out. There were some things that were left out, of course, but the doc did a better job of historically contextualizing pro wrestling than arguably any other film ever has. A must-see, and a worthy new member of the top five.
3. GLOW: The Story Of The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling
The documentary that launched one of the best-reviewed and most perfect television shows of the last decade. The story of the original G.L.O.W. girls is bizarre, wondrous and wonderful. The film perfectly captured everything that made the original film a sensation, and made you fall in love with the characters and the people behind them in under an hour and a half. It’s an emotional roller coaster and a celebration, and made a whole new generation of tastemakers and fans alike fall in love with these glorious weirdos.
2. Beyond The Mat
Maybe not the best wrestling documentary, but most fans’ overwhelming choice for their favorite. It’s endlessly quotable and has absolutely earned its reputation as the be-all and end-all of a look inside the world of professional wrestling. It contains memorable characters and historical moments, and went high and low in its investigation of the industry during the boom of the Attitude Era. Its shocking portrayal of the ramifications of the Rock’s unprotected chair shots to the head of Mick Foley still resonates and remains important to this day.
1. Wrestling With Shadows
Lightning in a bottle. Unlikely, improbable lightning. A documentary crew wanted to make a movie about Bret Hart, and got unprecedented access and permission to film everywhere and everything in WWF. Then everything with Hart and the company went to hell, but the cameras were allowed to keep rolling. Everything leading up to the Montreal Screwjob was captured, and everything backstage that night, including a loopy Vince McMahon being helped out of the locker room after allegedly being cold-cocked by Bret.
Wrestling With Shadows is practically perfect, and the reason why WWE pulled the plug on more access for Beyond The Mat beyond “HE’S GONNA PUKE” and a few other scattered behind-the-scenes moments. Wrestling With Shadows may not have changed the game, but it’s a peerless document of the one event that shaped modern wrestling more than any other.