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In 2011, WWF professional wrestler Jake “the Snake” Roberts officially retired, but it wasn’t as if he had much choice. Once at the top of his sport, Roberts was a broken-down, overweight alcoholic living alone after two failed marriages. His eight kids and most of his friends in the business had abandoned him, leaving Roberts to face his demons alone.
With remarkable access to Roberts in all his disturbing decrepitude, filmmaker Steve Yu sets out to tell the story of his attempt at a comeback – not to wrestling, but to reclaim his own life. Sometimes rough, often raw, but always real, Yu’s verite-style documentary has the potential to reach a broader audience than just pro wrestling fans with a profile of determination and courage that goes well beyond the drama displayed even during Roberts’ most fabled bouts.
Roberts hit his high point in the 1980s with his Jake “the Snake” ring persona, a unique and unnerving character who attacked his opponents while draping them with a giant python, an outlandish gambit that struck fear into his competitors and made him a hero to thousands of fans at the height of his career. Decades later when fellow wrestler “Diamond Dallas” Page seeks out his former mentor at the urging of Yu, Roberts has all but given up on life or even savoring the scattered remnants of his former career.
“I had a life, but I poisoned it,” Roberts bitterly observes when Page and Yu visit him at his modest home in 2012. Page, however, still sees the determined champion that Roberts once was and convinces his old friend to move into his home in Atlanta, where Page has a flourishing second career in the fitness business. There he can concentrate on trying to separate Roberts from the addictions and failures that are holding back his recovery by surrounding him with a tight-knit support group committed to helping him lose weight, get healthy and fight alcoholism.
Page prescribes a rigorous program of exercise, diet modification and yoga to address his obesity, as well as problems that Roberts experiences with his hip and shoulder. Regular AA meetings are intended to help him overcome his addictions, but Roberts repeatedly falls off the wagon. Although Page picks him up more than once, he makes it clear that Roberts will have to change his behavior if he expects to remain in Page’s program and become healthy again. Roberts, however, remains unconvinced that he can achieve sobriety and get his life back on track, setting them both up for either hard-earned success or spectacular failure.
Roberts, originally named Aurelian Smith, Jr., clearly has a host of personal issues to deal with, beginning with the neglect and abuse he says he suffered from his stepmother and father, also a pro wrestler. His disregard for his own estranged family is one of the abiding regrets that he slowly attempts to reconcile throughout the film by reconnecting with some of his adult children and attempting to make amends.
Yu’s first feature documentary turns out to be a bit rough around the edges, without however losing its fix on the film’s central themes. His reliance on nearly a half-dozen different cinematographers produces footage of inconsistent quality and although it’s almost always gratifyingly immediate, the camerawork can be a bit choppy. Despite these inconsistencies, the editorial package is well-assembled, although Yu’s decision to incorporate material on Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall, another wrestler taken in by Page with health and addiction issues similar to Roberts’, seems like an unnecessarily redundant digression.
The film’s greatest virtue is certainly the raw, unguarded moments that Yu is able to capture while interacting with the wrestlers. Roberts’ sometimes violent emotional swings between anger, fear and hope and Page’s steadfast patience and support reveal a relationship that goes well beyond professional respect to affirm a bond of love and friendship that can withstand challenges even professional wrestlers hesitate to face.
Director-writer: Steve Yu
Producers: Dallas Page, Christopher Carey, Steve Yu
Executive Producer: Christopher Bell
Directors of photography: Christopher Carey, Nathan Mowery, Derek Scearce, Nick Leone,Steve Yu
Editors: Dylan Frymyer, Nathan Mowery
Sales: Preferred Content
No rating, 91 minutes
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Writers Guild of America