Barbed Wire City: The Unauthorized History of Extreme Championship Wrestling is unlike any ECW documentary before it. You have to understand this before you jump in or else you’ll be painfully disappointed.
If you’re looking for a recount of the great angles of ECW’s past – the historic Raven and Tommy Dreamer feud, Taz and Sabu’s break-up and path towards Barely Legal 1997, they aren’t here. There are scant mentions of the men involved in said angles, but no analysis on the particulars.
No, Barbed Wire City – as described on its Kickstarter page is “the study of a subculture’s subculture” and it really is that. Disconnect this documentary from World Wrestling Entertainment’s The Rise and Fall of ECW, which did a fantastic job breaking down the history of the company, the players involved and their eventual demise.
There are certainly elements of the rise and fall in Barbed Wire City, but filmmakers John Philavage and Kevin Kiernan clearly saw that the story has been told enough times. Instead, the two decided to take a bold new route to the story of ECW and look at the relationship ECW had with its performers and fans.
You’ll notice this is a different animal than WWE’s production when one of the first interviews you’re presented with is Straw Hat Guy, yes, Straw Hat Guy. His inclusion, in addition to some great insight from StrictlyECW.com founder Tony Lewis help set this documentary apart from most other wrestling documentaries.
Talking to hardcore fans is something avoided in most documentaries but is a great insight in the mind of some of the more famous ECW fans. These aren’t just casual fans talking about the one time they saw a really cool match, no, Barbed Wire City had the hardcore of the hardcore. Imagine a WWE Bret Hart documentary with Vlad the Superfan, it would be awesome and it’s a great asset here.
Moreover, without access to the tape library (owned by Vince McMahon and WWE) a majority of the b-roll or cutaway shots in this documentary are fan-cam footage which only helps to reinforce the fan-driven narrative. The action is literally playing out from behind the guardrail. This distinction really helps differentiate the documentary, but does take away from a bit of the production values (more on that later).
The story itself is not unlike previous ECW documentaries or books, it’s the history of ECW, you know how it plays out. While Philapavage and Kiernan touch on all the major moments in ECW’s history – Mass Transit incident, PPV discussions, Barely Legal 1997 and the National TV deal, they clearly created the documentary for people that understood or were already aware of these moments. Instead of going in-depth on any one of these issues, they instead let the interviewers describe the mood at the time and move on. This was a great move on their end as most knowledge wrestling fans are well versed in ECW history. A recount of these stories is wholly unnecessary in a documentary like this.
The real narrative of Barbed Wire City comes in the sad nature of the wrestlers giving their lives to the company and receiving little, if anything in return. This documentary isn’t a glory piece about ECW and how awesome it was. It has those elements, but the overarching story of Barbed Wire City is how, in the end, it wasn’t worth it.
The blood, sweat and tears were great at the time but now, in 2013, it wasn’t worth it. This story is driven home quite well as the interviews with ex-ECW wrestlers like Balls Mahoney, Axl Rotten, Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge of Public Enemy and Steven Richards are juxtaposed with Shane Douglas’ ECW reunion promotion Extreme Reunion (eventually renamed Extreme Rising). The film does a great job of mentioning a pivotal and most times controversial moment in ECW and going back to Extreme Reunion just afterwards to let the moment sink in even more.
One great example is the juxtaposition of the Mass Transit Incident with Sabu being found unconscious the day of Extreme Reunion. One moment, New Jack is talking about slicing the head of a 17-year-old untrained wrestler and the next Shane Douglas is on the phone asking “Does he have a pulse?” It’s really a great way to show how little things have changed for a number of these performers in the past 15 years, sometimes pathetically so.
Another starling case of this juxtaposition is Axl Rotten who was interviewed twice in this documentary – once in 2001 and again in 2013 at Extreme Reunion. Throughout the 2001 interview, I was surprised at how good he looked and how positive his outlook was. Then, they interviewed him at Barbed Wire City and he was a wreck, not only had he seemed to age around 30 years, but he was also now suffering from bell’s palsy.
It was a stunning contrast and one that taps into your psyche. Of course, ECW isn’t the only culprit in Rotten’s demise, it’s more of a commentary on the independent wrestling profession and guys who choose to go about it in the way Rotten did. Balls Mahoney is a striking figure as well, but anyone who has seen him lately should already know his situation.
Moreover, during the downfall of ECW, the devotion and otherwise outward denial that some wrestlers went through is really telling. Mahoney himself claims in the 2001 interview that ECW was merely restructuring and that he can’t tell you specifics, but to be on the lookout for a new ECW. Wrestlers talk about not believing what they read and just waiting for the call from Heyman to come back and wrestle. It wasn’t until the moment that Heyman debuted on WWE Raw that they finally realized this rollercoaster was over.
Another great aspect of the storytelling in Barbed Wire City is the inclusion of journalists like Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and Pro Wrestling Torch’s Wade Keller. Keller, in particular, stands out in the documentary with his insights and unbiased opinions and analysis of particular events. This becomes even more clear during the Mass Transit discussion where the journalists (including Jason Powell of Prowrestling.net) went into detail on the disgusting nature of the incident, Metlzer even said “I hated wrestling” after watching the video. The wrestlers, erred on the side of not only denial but relative apathy towards the entire ordeal. Most continued to focus on the fact that Eric Kulas (Mass Transit) was 17-years-old and untrained at the time. He asked to be cut by New Jack, so he was cut. Ignoring, of course, that blading or letting someone cut you is dramatically different from what occurred in November of 1996.
Having the journalists involved in the project was a huge get and something I really enjoyed. It allowed the documentary to take a step back from the biased points of view you got from the fans, owners and wrestlers.
Where Barbed Wire City let me down was on a production standpoint. I’ll first off let people know that I work in video production for a profession so I may be a bit more sensitive to issue than others but I couldn’t get over some of the production gaffes and otherwise low quality production that permeated throughout the documentary.
The b-roll or cutaway shots was not an issue for me. Some people would love to see a production like The Rise and Fall of ECW which is filled with original ECW shot footage of big angles and matches but of course that’s not possible in this situation. I have no complaints about the use of fan cam footage, there was more than enough.
Where Philavage and Kiernan didn’t have video, they made great use of photos, giving them movement and a 3D/cutout effect that made their inclusion amongst video seem less jarring.
The interviews themselves were shot poorly. The lighting was inconsistent, one particular interview shows Keller in perfect light while the next scene has half his face shrouded in darkness. The Sandman has what appears to be a lamp at his side illuminating his face, leaving a shadow on the other half. These may be nitpicks but there are video production standards that should be met.
As someone who routinely does interviews, I understand the hardships that come with finding well lit, quiet and engaging locations for the interviews but one way or another you have to do better than the corner of a hotel room, or Dave Meltzer’s couch with sun peaking through the blinds.
I understand if the original interviews done in 2001 had a less than stellar look but there’s no reason for the newer interviews (the ones done during and after the $30,000+ Kickstarter campaign) to have substandard production. You’re the ones making a documentary, tell Gabe Sapolsky and Meltzer to take their hats off, control the lighting, make sure your sound is clean, purchase a black drape or a background. This isn’t asking for too much, these are inexpensive standards for high quality video in 2013.
The audio, while not perfect, is pretty solid throughout. A few guys, most notably Shane Douglas have echoed noise but I’m imagining they didn’t have a few hours to chat with him and get everything set up properly. Outside of Douglas, everyone else sounds crisp.
The score tends to get lost behind the interviews and while there is audible music it was hard to notice throughout. The one complaint I do have is the music seemed to be a constant repeat, almost as if there was one audio track throughout the entire documentary. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, just an observation I made.
Overall, don’t let me production complaints stop you from watching this documentary, you should watch it. If anything, it gives you more perspective into the toll violent wrestling takes on these performers. While you may be sick of the constant destruction stories of professional wrestling like The Wrestler, give yourself a chance to watch one more in Barbed Wire City. It doesn’t do anything significantly better than your run of the mill wrestling documentary, but it certainly doesn’t do anything worse.
The interviews are all great and the juxtaposition of ECW’s heyday with the Extreme Reunion buildup and show are fantastic. In my mind, it really made the documentary standout. Again, you aren’t going to get detailed recounts of ECW’s greatest angles or wrestlers, even guys like Tommy Dreamer get a passing “He was really hardcore…” and then a change of subject. Don’t expect to hear Meltzer and Bruce Mitchell break down the legendary Rob Van Dam/Jerry Lynn battle. Those types of specifics are not in this documentary. If you want to hear guys pour their hearts out for the company they loved, this is the documentary for you. If you want to hear the true story of ECW from the guys that lived it, this is the documentary for you.
If you want a bright, shiny, recount of ECW’s greatest moments, well, you may want to look elsewhere. Barbed Wire City doesn’t dance around sensitive subjects, many of the wrestlers talk about their issues with Heyman’s financial prowess. Some even recount the numerous times Heyman lied to their faces. Johnny Grunge has a particular great quote: “If Paul Heyman told me it was sunny outside, I’d run and get my umbrella.”
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a Heyman bashpiece at all, it’s far from it, but this is the beauty of Barbed Wire City. It didn’t go through the same editing process a polished WWE production would. If the guys said it, it got put in this documentary.
Barbed Wire City is the raw, real emotions of a shoot interview with the integrity of a journalistic documentary. If you consider yourself a hardcore wrestling fan, do yourself a favor and watch Barbed Wire City. Understand though, that the production is on par with a high school/college video production final project. There’s a shame to the ECW-style of cinematography but it’s largely unacceptable in 2013.
The production certainly doesn’t destroy the movie, but it makes it hard to call it one of the better wrestling documentaries ever.
Even still, Barbed Wire City excels at telling a great story through the words of those who lived it.
Purchase Barbed Wire City at http://www.barbedwirecity.com/store/.
Listen to the Voices of Wrestling interview with John Philapavage at https://www.voicesofwrestling.com/2012/08/30/filmmaker-john-philapavage-ecw-documentary/.