ESPN 30 for 30: Nature Boy (2017)

Directed by Rory Karpf

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of documentaries has, at once, been both groundbreaking while also settling into a familiar formula over the course of it’s 83 installments. The series burst onto the scene in 2009, producing extremely interesting and well made sports documentaries about events which took place in the 30 years of the cable sports network’s history. Progressing to Volume II and now Volume III of the series, that 30 year restriction no longer applies. However, with so many films included, it’s hard not to notice a pattern and a formula for their work. There are always outliers, take last year’s stunning O.J.: Made in America, which went on to win the Academy Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature. So when I heard they were branching out into the world of professional wrestling with a documentary about the life and career of the Nature Boy, Ric Flair, I was intrigued by the film’s potential.

Professional wrestling could be debated between fans and naysayers until the cows come home. Is it a sport? Is it real? Does it really even matter? I was never one to make it appointment viewing, but there have been some real stars that have come out of wrestling (ever heard of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?). So when Ric Flair, born Richard Fliehr and raised to adoptive parents, broke onto the scene with a whole new style, he changed the game forever. Flair, also known as the Nature Boy, brought a flair and a lifestyle of the ring which endeared him to fans who liked rooting for the villain. His trademark “Woo!” became a part of the wrestling and pop culture lexicon, while his struggles outside of the ring, promiscuity, alcoholism, among others, went largely unnoticed by casual fans throughout his career.

ESPN has a great opportunity with a project like this. Professional wrestling has not yet been explored by the 30 for 30 series, and I often find myself enjoying the installments about the more “outlying” sports than I do the mainstream ones (think Slaying the Badger about cycling). However, with Nature Boy, director Rory Karpf appears to be out of his league. Clearing a mega fan himself, Karpf forgets many documentary filmmaking fundamentals which cause the finished product to read more as a hagiography than a biography of the subject, while also playing more like a Sunday morning recap than a real, emotional, important piece of documentary filmmaking. Karpf’s other films in the series have also felt lacking to me. He manages to ask all the right questions when interviewing Flair, for example, but he fails to frame them in any emotionally affecting sort of way, or to juxtapose the talking head moments with important clips from Flair’s career.

What results is merely a film celebrating everything that Flair accomplished, while also failing to truly put his impact and success within the context of his career. Not being a mega fan, but knowing enough about the sport, I was able to see his impact on the industry, but was also forced to take much of what Kaprf was telling me at face value. Nature Boy, as a result, becomes a fan film, one which Flair enthusiasts will likely enjoy, and wrestling fans can appreciate. I, on the other hand, was left wanting so much more. Flair’s story is endlessly fascinating and compelling, and in the hands of a more capable filmmaker, a biographical documentary on his life and career could be really moving and extremely entertaining. Karpf is merely scratching the surface with Nature Boy, which makes it all the more frustrating of a watch.

The world of professional wrestling is ripe for a stunning 30 for 30 documentary, unfortunately, this is not that film. Karpf spends too much time idolizing and drooling over Flair to feel like he cares about him as a person, merely celebrating his character instead of relating to the man. There is no more heartbreaking moment then when Ric Flair is smiling ear to ear remembering the great times he had with his son Reid, and then realizing that by being Reid’s friend, he forgot to be his father, blaming himself for his untimely death. This moment should be the center of the film, the entire message covering his trouble past and celebrated career, but it isn’t. Karpf has pumped Flair up so much by this point that the moment comes and goes and we miss it. It is nothing. While having everything necessary to make a strong, emotionally powerful and entertaining documentary, this film is nothing.

** 1/2 – Average

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