Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’
Directed by Chad Schaffler, Memphis Heat covers close to forty years of wrestling history in Memphis. Featuring candid interviews with the likes of Jerry “The King” Lawler, Sputnik Monroe, Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart, Jackie Fargo, Bill Dundee, Rocky Johnson and several others, Schaffler is able to provide a good context of not only why the wrestling scene in Memphis worked, but also why they garnered such a loyal fan following. One of the wrestlers interviewed in the film points out that the wrestlers actually needed to know how to wrestle back then as it was the only means of protecting themselves from their opponents who were actually trying to hurt them. This is a stark contrast from the “stuntmen” that embody wrestling today. Wrestlers also had to be prepared to endure the wrath of the fans, also known as the “heat”, if they played the role of the villain. It was not uncommon to have bottles thrown at them, their cars keyed, and their houses were toilet papered.
Despite all of this, each wrestler revelled in the attention; they took the abuse as a sign of a job well done. Although the film primarily looks at the rise in popularity of wrestling in Memphis, Schaffler does not hesitate to show how wrestling also had an impacted on many of the social issues of that time. Memphis was not only one of the first to feature female wrestlers in the programs, but wrestlers like Sputnik Monroe played important roles in the civil rights movement. When Monroe, one of the biggest wrestling stars at the time, was arrested for hanging out at a bar in the “African-American side” of town, he did not try to sweep the matter under the rug. Instead he hired an African-American lawyer to defend him. If that was not shocking enough, Monroe also demanded that African-Americans be allowed into the arenas to watch the shows live along with white audience members. The fact that a wrestler, who many viewed as a dumb goon, made such cultural waves in Memphis is inspiring to say the least. A few years later Memphis would be the place where Rocky Johnson, father of actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, would become the first ever African-American wrestling champion of the south.
One can make a valid argument that Memphis Heat covers too broad a ground. Each section of the film’s four major segments could be its own individual documentary. Still, Schaffler does a good job of balancing all the pieces without hindering the pacing. The only segment that could have been shortened is the footage regarding Jerry “The King” Lawler and comedian Andy Kaufman. This is not to say the section is bad, it is just that Lawler and Kaufman’s relationship is so well documented that it did not feel like it offered anything new. Where Memphis Heat really excels is when it is providing insight into the rise of wrestlers like of Lawler, Sputnik Monroe, Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart, Jackie Fargo, and Bill Dundee. The candid interviews, especially with Fargo, are both amusing and insightful. Lawler and Hart make up the bulk of the latter half of the film, which make sense considering that they were such iconic individuals for anyone who followed wrestling in the 70’s through to the early 90’s. In fact they still are influential to this day.
The film also points out how important the Memphis circuit was for many well know WWE stars. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, The Undertaker, The Ultimate Warrior, and a slew of others all came up through the Memphis circuit. Interestingly enough, the film only briefly touches on how the emergence of Vince McMahon marked the beginning of the end for Memphis wrestling. To say Memphis Heat has something for everyone may sound clichéd, but it is the truth. Fans of wrestling will find much to reminisce over and those who are not fans will find the film surprisingly engaging. While it may not change your view of wrestling on the whole, you will gain a greater appreciation for the Memphis wrestling scene and the wrestlers who worked there.