My knowledge of pro-wrestling for the most part starts and ends with the Mountain Goats’ 2015 album Beat the Champ[i]. Prior to that album, it seemed like big guys performing a high energy stage show for an audience of drunk idiots. What John Darnielle does so well is showing that limited and first impressions are very often wrong. Beat the Champ is an album that really humanizes so many different aspects of wrestling: the matches, the fans, and the wrestlers. Like the Mountain Goats album, Andre the Giant was a similar experience. It educated me on something I thought would just be a weird anomaly. HBO’s Andre the Giant sheds light on the mythic Andre Roussimoff that is engaging for both fans and casual viewers.
What the documentary does so well is that it focuses more on personal experiences rather than just telling a biography. Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon receive plenty of screentime discussing their own personal stories. Wrestling historian David Shoemaker bridges the gap between fans and pros, and Andre’s family elaborates on his life before fame and his last days. Plus there are enough celebrity cameos to tell fun anecdotes (see: Arnold Schwarzenegger). Roussimoff’s humble beginnings in rugby and massive celebrity status were compelling stories, regardless of previous knowledge. The documentary was also sympathetic without sugarcoating anything. The moments about Roussimoff’s daughter were heartbreaking, but his daughter did express her understanding for his absence.
The stories about the rise of pro-wrestling and the history of the regional leagues were also a great crash course. They discuss some of the traditions of wrestling seamlessly. It didn’t feel dumbed down nor did it feel like jargon. Director Jason Hehir handles each topic with a no-bullshit approach. He trims anything that’s unnecessary for the plot. He knows what twists and turns to take.
Watching Andre the Giant, I didn’t expect to get as emotionally worked up as I had. When Roussimoff’s daughter spoke, it was so profoundly sad. Similarly when McMahon mentioned that Andre was essentially planning to die , it really forces the viewer to wonder how terrifying and heartbreaking that is, as he couldn’t do the one thing he loved in his last days. This was a documentary about the humanity of a professional wrestler rather than just following his career. It’s an in-depth look that attempts to really paint a human image of someone who seemed like merely a giant amongst men.
[i] More recently Glow, but still mostly the Mountain Goats.