The earliest moments of The Resurrection of Jake the Snake are a portrait of a broken giant. These first images of Jake the Snake Roberts, one of the most indelible figures from pro wrestling's 1980's renaissance, will either be not at all what you expect or, if you've been paying attention, exactly as bad as you might have imagined. As documentarian Steve Yu first introduces him, Roberts is wrecked by addiction and haunted by the specter of child abuse, and living nearly penniless in a small home off a rural route to nowhere.
"I was getting tired of people coming to me going, 'Didn't you used to be Jake the Snake Roberts?'" Roberts offers in a hoarse whisper familiar to every wrestling fan of a certain vintage. "'Man what the fuck happened to you?'" That last question, and the broader question of identity, is at the core of the film.
The Resurrection of Jake the Snake is currently garnering a bit of Oscar buzz, primarily by dint of it not being rejected out of hand by the Academy upon its submission. That reads snarky, but it's not. That mere consideration is an achievement in its own right, and while Resurrection doesn't quite achieve the heights of the great pro wrestling films in history—its moments of greatness come almost despite themselves—there is some greatness in it. Most of these center on Roberts' vulnerability, and the vexing question of what it means to be a wrestler.
It's tough to watch Resurrection without thinking back to Beyond the Mat, which is arguably the greatest pro wrestling documentary ever and which was not especially popular with Jake Roberts' compatriots. In that earlier film, Roberts is in the depths of what would become an extended fall from grace. His body hadn't given up at that point, but his mind had. By contrast, Resurrection sees Roberts, driven by physical pain brought on by age and a lifetime of bumps absorbed, pleading for help.
The common thread between the films is Roberts' complete lack of filter. He is a raw nerve throughout, and his wild emotionality makes him a hugely compelling documentary subject. It is also what made him one of the greatest wrestlers ever to get in a ring: his emotional IQ is sky-high and immediate, and he is as much a natural at deflecting blame for the mistakes he's made in his life as he was at manipulating a crowd. It's remarkable to watch, in both films. It's rare to see one study of such a gifted and instinctive performer, much less two.
Roberts simply can't switch off, a condition that wrestlers have talked about for as long as wrestlers have talked about wrestling. After working weeks on end, they simply can't shut down after working in front of a crowd. Worse still, wrestlers aren't like actors—Jake Roberts is Jake the Snake at Wal-Mart, in the ring, at home, at a restaurant, at his grandson's ballgame. Edge, who's become one of the most grounded ex-wrestlers since his retirement, says of Jake in the film, "When the entire world knows you as one character for such a long time, I think it's easy to become that character."
Roberts' former protégé Diamond Dallas Page, who was a star in his own right, comes to the rescue. DDP became a bit of a yoga guru after his retirement, although he doesn't have much mysticism about him. He's still a rough, foul-mouthed Southern wrestler who just so happens to have set up an accessible and grueling yoga workout which has made him a lot of money. He also uses his brand of yoga as a self-help tool, which is about as close to yogi status as he's likely to get.
DDP invites Roberts to live with him in his Atlanta home. Roberts really is in bad shape at this point, and had been for some time—for the last decade and a half, wrestling fans have been expecting the worst for Roberts every day. (The same goes for Scott Hall, who also shows up in the documentary as another lost soul DDP takes in). The dilemma facing DDP is real and poignant. The student has to save the teacher.
The most compelling moments in the film are all in that first half, which evokes the frustration of dealing with an addict as well as I've ever seen it done. The fraternal love that all three ex-wrestlers possess for one another is palpable, and the best parts of Resurrection are about negotiation: DDP negotiating with Jake to save him, Jake negotiating with his own demons to save himself, and both men negotiating with a dying Scott Hall to get him into the house. The careers that made and unmade these men required them to keep their emotions near the surface; they are vulnerable, and all the more riveting to watch for that.
The back half of the film, in contrast, is almost entirely swirling music and triumph. The negotiations come to a close. Roberts is saved, Hall is saved, DDP is relieved, and then we replay it for another 45 minutes. The pacing seems slightly off, though the ending, involving Roberts and Hall returning to the wrestling fold and being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, picks the pace back up. As Chris Jericho puts it, "WWE's not like they used to be. They're not going to touch you unless you've proven you're straight and not going to embarrass them."
It must be noted that the filmmaker, Steve Yu, is currently the president of DDP Yoga, though he told me that he's not sure he was officially president at the time of filming. This isn't noted anywhere, though it's obvious that he has some unstated working relationship with the company during the film. This creates something of a conflict of interest, naturally, and explains some of the infomercial vibe of the latter third of the film as the viewer is left to linger on speeches and happy reflections. Indeed, it's something Yu was worried about, and they tried hard to keep DDP Yoga branding off-camera so as to not detract from the human drama at the core of the film.
This is a touch sketchy, but it's also perfect in a sense: as with wrestling, we're left to wonder what's real and what isn't. Reality and unreality blend and dissolve into one another. In one as in the other, there's the question of whether the reality-versus-unreality question really matters at all. Is it too harsh to be cynical when truthfully, objectively, there are two men whose lives were saved by DDP? Is it right to scoff at yoga and vitamins underpinned by carny-barker salesmanship if the proof that it works is right there, talking to you from the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony? If you're sincerely rooting for the people involved, is there anything wrong with indulging in a bit of triumphalism? Yes, DDP has made a good sum from his yoga, and this film stands to make him some more. It's also apparent he sincerely cares about helping others, that it might be his purpose in life. It's up to the viewer, to you, to decide which matters more.
Whatever stagecraft is at work or not at work, the men at the center of The Resurrection of Jake the Snake are clearly real, and that outweighs the other questions the film invites, begs, and asks under its breath. Where Beyond the Mat pulled back the curtain on pro wrestling, The Resurrection of Jake the Snake shows us pro wrestlers in a similarly unfiltered and unstinting light. It's not pretty, or simple, but then of course it isn't.