The Resurrection Of Jake The Snake
A few weeks ago, when Joanie “Chyna” Laurie’s death become known to the public, I took a moment to reflect on the number of pro-wrestlers I had watched at some point during my intermittent appreciation of the art – off and on from the late nineties to the present – who had since passed, often very untimely, or in the most tragic kind of circumstances. Chris Benoit of course, and Eddie Guerrero, but many others too: Andrew “Test” Martin, Eddie “Umaga” Fatu, Chris Kanyon, Mike “Crash Holly” Lockwood, Ray “Big Boss Man” Traylor, Curt “Mr Perfect” Hennig, Sean Haire, Mike “Awesome” Alfonso, Nelson “Viscera” Frazer.
And there are the many, many others whose lives have been left irreparably damaged by injuries sustained in the squared circle: beloved fan favourite Bryan Danielson’s recent enforced retirement is only the latest example. Pro-wrestling, a business that combines constant athletic performance with non-stop travelling and limited financial remuneration, is an entertainment that consistently leaves its performers hurt, physically and mentally, with recourse to narcotics an all too frequent result.
And if there is one former wrestler who encapsulates those problems, but has remained standing, it’s Aurelian Smith Jr, aka “Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts”, a man who wowed crowds during his heydays in the eighties and early nineties. But since then, Roberts is better known as a man who succumbed to a devastating drug and alcohol addiction, that left him a physical wreck, more of a cautionary tale than wrestling legend. Here, in his debut documentary feature, director Steve Yu follows Roberts’ efforts to get clean and get in shape following a decade of embarrassment, with the help of long-time friend “Diamond” Dallas Page’s yoga program,
Resurrection lays its cards on the table very bluntly right from the opening, with a look at a very overweight and emotionally fraught Roberts, barely able to speak to the camera in front of him. Yu doesn’t spend all that long on Roberts’ high water mark in the business, briefly showing a run – with the snake, with the DDT, and a certain soft-spoken authority that was rare for someone trying to make an impression in those days – that has the likes of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Chris “Jericho” Irvine, Dusty “Goldust” Rhodes and Adam “Edge” Copeland gushing with praise, in some of the film’s only talking head interview spots. Here are some of the best the business has ever seen, tripping over themselves to describe Roberts as a major inspiration.
But then came the fall, with footage from the unnamed but infamous “Heroes of Wrestling” PPV and subsequent indie shows, where Roberts, intoxicated to the point of being unable to stand or speak properly, dutifully takes to the ring for some bloated, inept humiliation. His reputation lies in shreds: one indie promoter, who valiantly tried to save a disastrous show by attempting to take a DDT from a befuddled Roberts, comes close to real violence when Roberts is indicated to be exposing himself to the crowd. Where he once he performed in front of throngs of over 90’000, he becomes fodder for TMZ in front of 700 or less.
By the time we get to Roberts in the timeframe that dominates Resurrection – around 2013-2015 I think – it’s fair to say that his reputation as an adequate performer is in tatters, with the man himself circling the drain, freely admitting to vodka fuelled binges and crack cocaine usage. Much of that was documented in Barry Blaustein’s 1999 offering Beyond The Mat, often considered the seminal documentary on pro-wrestling, with Roberts’ downward spiral featured prominently. Enter Yu and Page, men who fondly remember the Roberts of yesteryear, and want to get him back on his feet. Their respective views of Roberts illustrate starkly that there is still someone worth saving here: Yu’s youthful remembrances remind you of the potential Roberts had and still has, while Page’s career owed much to the Snake’s tutelage.
Page, perhaps, overeggs his overall impact in the industry – there’s no talk of his rather dud-like time in the WWF/E after his WCW prominence – and you will detect a little bit of a smell, occasionally, of a promo video for him in Resurrection, which features his Yoga program extensively. I suppose one can forgive him, given his sterling work in refusing to give up on Roberts and others, and Page comes off extremely well throughout most of Resurrection: a warm, engaging and affectionate man, who got more than he gave in the wrestling industry and wants to rectify that balance after the end of his regular career. Yu too, puts himself front and centre a lot, but you have to admire his willingness to keep the camera on, all the way up to the point when it seems as if violence is suddenly going to ensue.
Resurrection is at its best as a portrait of addiction. You’ll squirm uncomfortably as Roberts lays out his abusive childhood at the hands of a father that he was never able to gain the respect of, despite his misguided efforts, and a stepmother who was sexually abusive: indeed, doing some brief background research on the man, he actually leaves a larger portion of his disturbing childhood and family life off the record, and it’s hard to imagine anyone lasting to adulthood without some issues in those circumstances.
Then came the pressures of the road, of living a lonely transitory existence, of the ring, of mounting injuries and the need to mask that inner and outer pain so you can just keep going. With the fall of bookings, Roberts became a reluctant semi-retiree, pitifully noting that he, like many others, have precious little to live for after wrestling.
So we’re left with Roberts as he is, but not how he has to end. The resulting journey is a brutally upfront one, as we see Roberts go through highs and lows. No straightforward Hollywood-esque narrative of redemption here, as Jake falls off the wagon quickly after some initial optimism, and not for the last time between beginning and end. The fight becomes one between morose pessimism and hopeful idealism: Roberts latches onto the dream of being invited to participate in the 2014 Royal Rumble match as a guest veteran, and looks little beyond that point as a professional goal. More affecting maybe is his efforts to reassemble his relationship with his kids, who seem perfectly willing to give their father another shot: Roberts’ commitment to the program, despite the setbacks, is all important.
Roberts isn’t a have a go hero or a grouchy old man in need of a kick in the butt. He’s more human than that. He knows he can fail, but doesn’t get too hung up on the major relapses: rather, it’s a smaller one later on that causes him the most devastation, as he struggles to deal with the fact that a brief moment of weakness can leave him emotionally wrecked. Dealing with actual physical setbacks are a big problem too, with Roberts left in tears as he attempts to maintain the yoga program with a severe enough shoulder injury.
Fans freely donate the cash that Roberts needs for surgery: the outcome of the drive shows vividly that Roberts is still loved, and gives him something additional to latch on to. Getting back into the ring proper is a step too far, but Roberts still has some show in him, and the journey from the drug addled wreck of the opening minutes to the man who can get in the ring with the members of “the Shield” and not look all that out of place is an enormous enough one. Yu’s direction betrays his amateurism at times – it’s very simple handycam stuff, that is beneath in-depth criticism – but he has enough technique to showcase the power of Roberts’ personality, and the infectious likeability that he exudes.
Yu also takes an interesting side road to look at Scott Hall, aka “Razor Ramon”, a man who stood tall in both the old WWF and WCW, but has since seen both his body and his faculties diminish, to the point where a huge alcohol problem leaves him temporarily wheelchair bound. Helping Hall at a moment of peril shows Roberts not only standing up for his own sobriety, but learning to help others: a crucial next step in joining the network of people needed to keep them all on the straight and narrow, and to illustrate the connection between former wrestlers.
Hall’s inclusion in the documentary also serves to illustrate the recurring problems in the industry better than just listing off its victims as I did at the top: there are plenty more men and women in Roberts’ position out there, who once regaled audiences in the ring. The WWE’s commitment to provide financial support for those seeking rehab services is to be commended, but came too late to help a great many.
As the title rather spoils, it’s a happy ending for Roberts. He doesn’t get to be in the Rumble, but gets something even better: an invitation to the WWE Hall of Fame, a more lasting reward for his years of work in the ring and his desire to get clean and healthy out of it. Roberts duly earns the adulation that comes his way at Wrestlemania 30, but has enough humility to acknowledge that he would still be dying quickly but for the assistance of people like Yu, Page and his family. Unlike the sometimes stilted Beyond The Mat, where Roberts was just one of several wrestlers focused on, Resurrection allows us to see a more well-formed and concluded story, even just with Roberts’ relationship with his children, which ends here on a much happier note.
Resurrection is a formulaic enough beast, but is required watching for anyone with fond memories of pro-wrestling, or an interest in its current state. Happy endings for those who leave the squared circle are rare enough it seems at times, and while it would be inaccurate to say that Roberts is certainly on the straight and narrow from here on out, Resurrection indicates that, as he says, Roberts’ history will not be his destiny. Yu is to be commended for the effort in providing an elongated postscript to Beyond The Mat, and aiding in Roberts’ recovery. One can only hope that his example will encourage others left scarred by a pro-wrestling life to seek the help that is available out there, and to limit the list of those who died untimely in the future. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Slamdance).