About halfway through the 20 minute documentary, The Top Rope, a soft-spoken, bearded man named Billy Gray says, “It’s how I’m wired.”
Billy is explaining why he spends most of his time playing a character named Hunter Grey, a viking who is, at one point, seen carrying a big axe. (By being a viking, he explains, he can make people laugh while still being believably intimidating.) Billy, who was a championship wrestler in high school and who comes from a long line of wrestlers, now makes his living traveling the pro wrestling circuit in Colorado. It’s hardly glamorous. Billy tells us stories about having to change in parking lots and says that if you have a locker room, you should consider yourself to be lucky. He also tells us about how his family was initially dismissive of his career and how it took a while before they actually started coming to his matches. But, whenever we actually see Billy performing and in the ring, we understand why he does it. The crowds love watching him. When Billy Gray’s in that ring, he’s a star.
Billy is one of several wrestlers to be interviewed in The Top Rope. Considering that one of the main appeals of pro-wrestling is the flamboyance of the people involved, it’s tempting to be surprised to discover that, outside the ring, the majority of the participants come across as being rather soft-spoken. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at all. One of the joys of performing, after all, is assuming a new and different persona.
For instance, a wrestler named Zach Anaya is obviously somewhat bemused with his villain status but, when we see him in the ring, we see someone who is truly enjoying playing his role. A scene in which he jumped off a ledge and landed on top of two wrestlers below left me cringing because you could tell that, for all the talk about how pro-wrestling matches are essentially a type of performance art, the participants can still get seriously injured. Scripted or not scripted, you have to be willing to push yourself to extremes in order to pursue it.
Also interviewed is Curtis Cole, a wrestler who rather touchingly talks about how he used to watch wrestling with his mother. You get the feeling that, to a certain extent, he’s wrestling in her memory. Cole also discusses the importance of having a storyline in the ring. Without a storyline, it’s just two guys jumping on each other. With a storyline, it becomes an epic battle of good and evil. Cole tears up while discussing once past storyline and I have to admit that he got so emotional that even I, who has never even watched a wrestling match, started to get emotional too. In a film full of great storytellers, Curtis Cole might be the best.
This documentary was directed by Cody Broadway, who previously directed 4 Quarters of Silence, a film about the Texas School for The Deaf’s football team. He brings the same empathetic touch to this film. Though the film did not make me a pro wrestling fan (to misquote Billy Gray, it’s just not how I’m wired), it did make me a fan of the men who were interviewed and it made me happy that they have this in their lives. We’re all wired differently but, as this film demonstrates, there’s a place for all of us if we’re willing to look for it.