Lipstick and Dynamite (2004)

Lipstick and Dynamite is a solid and informative documentary about the roots of women’s professional wrestling but suffers from a clear direction and self-serving storytelling from it’s principal cast.

Our longtime readers will be aware that we at Cybermonkey love the professional wrestling.  The potential for injury, the over-the top personalities, the interviews, the behind the scenes “shoots” – we love everything about this type of entertainment and have spent many an enjoyable hour plunked in front of the TV or our computers to see what CM Punk was going to do next or who was in Japan or what Scott Hall has been up to.  Wrestling is not a gender-biased form of entertainment either.  The women wrestlers work just as hard and bust just as much ass as the men do and are just as entertaining (for instance, Awesome Kong!).  Yet, for some reason, women wrestlers don’t get the same publicity as the men.  Sure, they have DVD sets and action figures and TNA Wrestling will even occasionally put a women’s match as the main event (before that sounds extremely sexist, let me point out that the cruiserweights also never get main events) but there is not as much attention paid to the ladies side as there has been to the men in terms of documentaries.  While flipping through Netflix the other night, I ran across Lipstick and Dynamite, a 2004 Documentary about the roots of women’s wrestling from the carnival circuit days all the way until today’s WWE Divas.  I figured I’d check it out to see what kind of information was provided and how these ladies were portrayed.

Lipstick and Dynamite focuses mostly on a select group of women’s wrestlers who worked for notorious promoter Billy Wolf: The Fabulous Moolah, Mae Young, Ida Martinez, Penny Banner, Ella Waldek and Gladys ‘Killem’ Gillem.  These ladies were the roots of today’s WWE Divas, touring the country in the 1950s and struggling to make themselves a success during the golden age of wrestling’s formation.  Most of these women escaped horrible situations and utilized wrestling as a means to promote themselves differently and suffered the slings of criticism, low pay, injury and exploitation as a result.  The wrestling portrayed here isn’t the sex appeal with limited skills that is so often seen on today’s televised product but real wrestling with stiff shots and legitimate skill, proving these ladies were true pioneers in the sport of professional wrestling.

The film consists of interviews with the cast of lady wrestlers, sporadically touching on the feminist themes of taboo sports, all supposedly cumulating in a reunion of the pioneers of ladies wrestling.  Though the bulk of the documentary is the women telling the stories of their lives and the trials and tribulations of being a working women’s wrestler, there is a big difference in the truth of what’s being told that will confuse many non-wrestling fans.  See, in the old carnival days all the way through to the internet age, there is a term wrestlers use called “Kayfabe,” which is the storyline of pro wrestling.  The characters are the characters and the wrestling is 100% real, no matter where and when you encountered the talent.  Telling the truth is called a “shoot” and shoot interviews have become a popular modern staple over the past few years.  Where the film fails is half of the women interviewed keep the kayfabe storylines going and only a few women shoot.  Both Moolah and Mae Young, outstanding talents and definite legends of the business, decide that 90% of their interviews would be kayfabe.  For instance, Moolah’s assertion that she wanted another shot at Wendy Richter for the WWF women’s title but Wendy kept ducking her so she hid under a mask and defeated her that way.  Truth is, Wendy’s success during the Rock and Wrestling Era caused her to feel she was worth more money to re-sign with the WWF so Vince pulled a switch and put Moolah under a mask to take the title back.  Moolah also asserts she was an undefeated champion for 40 years because she legitimately beat everyone put in front of her.  Peggy Banner gets the same treatment but it simply isn’t true.  It was all decided by the promoter and Moolah was her own promoter so it can get confusing to someone who has no background in the reality of professional wrestling.  Killem Gillem is one of the only ladies who tells it like it is – her job was to lose to the champion.  This mix of reality storytelling and kayfabe  does make the documentary more of a mess than a history but the stories these women tell about their lives, working on the road, the physical punishment they took in and out of the ring and their roads to success (or failure) definitely balance out the unreality of some of the events.

The women are honest and candid about how they feel about each other and the promoters they worked for.  The most interesting information is the backstage politics one had to play to get featured and how there were very limited areas for the women to ply their trade.  The wrestling business morphed from the carnival circuit, where the women often times wrestled local men, to the territory system that would last until Vince McMahon Jr. changed everything and if a woman wrestler made enemies in one territory it was often hard to move to another one.  Most of the women were in agreement that Moolah was a wonderful performer but they all had different views of her outside the ring, depending on their treatment while working with her.  Sometimes Moolah is seen as a wonderful mentor and smart business woman who had her talent’s best interest at heart but others view her as an opportunistic woman whose success came at the cost of the talent working under her.  Though the kayfabe is hard to work through at some points, the fascinating look at what these women had to go through to achieve the level women’s wrestling is today is marvelous.

The critical flaw in the documentary is the lack of a narrative thread to tie it all together.  The interviews are randomly strung together, mostly progressing from topic to topic but mostly meandering all over the place.  The reunion, at which one expects the critical Killem Gillem to go face to face with Moolah (whom she was sorely unhappy with) never really culminates in anything but what seems to be a friendly reunion.  It is the director’s lack of understanding about the reality of the business coupled with the desire to make an overview of the time period of women’s wrestling that contributes to the lack of focus and meandering nature of the film.  Is it still a good documentary?  Of course, and definitely worth the watch but it does not do the excellent job as, say, Wrestling with Shadows or Beyond the Mat did with bringing a fascinating subject to light.

Lipstick and Dynamite is a solid and informative documentary about the roots of women’s professional wrestling but suffers from a clear direction and self-serving storytelling from it’s principal cast.  The documentary is a good first effort in bringing a little know subject to light but fails to capture what made these women outstanding and has no real direction.  The information, though sometimes kayfabe, is fascinating and the women themselves are a joy to listen to.  It’s unfortunate that such a wonderful subject is only represented by this average documentary.  Still worth the view to explore this little-known side of pro-wrestling, it’s just a shame the documentary wasn’t all it could be.

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