The intriguingly structured two-part ESPN 30 for 30 entry The American Gladiators Documentary shows there’s a lot more to one of the 1990s biggest cultural phenomenons than meets the eye. Director Ben Berman’s comprehensive and playful look at a horribly reviewed “sports” competition show that was bringing in thirteen million viewers in syndication every week devotes about ninety minutes each to two different, but intersecting tracks.
The first half of The American Gladiators Documentary looks at the day-to-day workings of the show itself through the eyes of producers, directors, contestants, former “gladiators,” and predominantly larger than life co-creator Johnny Ferraro. The show – which revolved around everyday people trying to best hulking, athletic behemoths in a variety of physical challenges – hearkened back to a time when the safety and wellbeing of such participants was secondary to creating larger than life spectacle. Think of it like how professional wrestling was during the same era, only less scripted, just as drug fuelled, and somehow even dumber. It was a blast to watch, but as Berman’s interview subjects point out (or don’t point out in the case of some who declined to participate), it wasn’t a blast to make.
The second half focuses more on the genesis of the series itself and the muddy history of its roots. Larger than life figure Ferraro – who’s the epitome of a love him or hate him kind of guy, depending on who you talk to – likes to say that American Gladiators was his baby, but the concept actually started among union workers in Erie, Pennsylvania. This part of The American Gladiators Documentary finds Berman trying his best to track down the elusive and enigmatic Dann Carr, the show’s other credited creator, and someone Ferraro seemingly doesn’t want the director to talk to.
Each half of The American Gladiators Documentary could be watched as well done, stand alone features on their own, which makes their pairing and the decision to split it all into two parts all the more pleasing. There are laughs, tears, and moments that will make viewers angry, but it’s always brisk and never boring. Berman’s decision to make both halves slightly different in style is also a welcome choice. Many detractors of the series that birthed these films will say it’s probably better than the show deserved.
It’s also funny and worth noting that American Gladiators and its ill fated, watered down 2007 revival were birthed from writers’ strikes that were happening in Hollywood. Something tells me that The American Gladiators Documentary couldn’t be premiering at a more perfect time.
The American Gladiators Documentary will be available to stream across Canada via Hot Docs from May 5th to 9th. It premieres on ESPN in the US on Tuesday, May 30th (Part One) and Wednesday, May 31 (Part Two).
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