The Ballad of Body Slam
Paying the Direct-To-Video Piper 📼
Welcome to Pop' n’ Pizza, a weekly newsletter highlighting what’s new in pop culture and pulp fiction. WRESTLEMANIA — the Showcase of the Immortals — is only six weeks away, and to celebrate, I’m publishing a wrestling movie review every two weeks leading up to the big event. This week, I’m talking about Hal Needham’s 1986 film BODY SLAM. 🍕🥤
1986 was a pretty [Light the fuse! Bring the boom!] dynamite year for rock 'n' roll, movies, and professional wrestling. Songs like Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," Cutting Crew's "(I Just) Died in Your Arms," and "Invisible Touch" by Genesis climbed to the top of the rock charts. Meanwhile, at the multiplex, audiences paid $3.71 a ticket to see films like TOP GUN, CROCODILE DUNDEE, ALIENS, PLATOON, BACK TO SCHOOL, and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF.
In the squared circle, the Rock' n' Wrestling boom period of the 1980s was in full swing. Ric Flair was Pro Wrestling Illustrated's Wrestler of the Year, Harley Race was WWF's newly crowned King of the Ring, and Hulk Hogan vs. Paul Orndorf was the hottest feud around. However, the PWI Most Popular Wrestler of 1986 wasn't Flair or Hogan. It was "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, winner of WWF's equally prestigious "Best Personality in 'Land of a Thousand Dances'" Slammy Award.
Piper had become a massive mainstream star thanks to his appearance in Cyndi Lauper's "The Goonies' R' Good Enough" music video, the CBS Saturday morning cartoon HULK HOGAN’S ROCK ‘N’ WRESTLING, and his recurring segments on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT’S MAIN EVENT. Piper was poised to become pro wrestling's next breakout mega-star, like Hulk Hogan after his stint as "The Ultimate Male" Thunderlips in 1982's ROCKY III.
Enter BODY SLAM, the 1986 direct-to-video movie that captures the zeitgeist of the rock 'n' wrestling era and serves as Piper's first credited film role. Directed by stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham (SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, MEGAFORCE, RAD), BODY SLAM stars Dirk Benedict (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, THE A-TEAM) as M. Harry Smilac, a disgraced music promotor who gets into the wrasslin' business.
As the title card appears, the needle drops on Moses Tyson Jr.'s "My Body Keeps Changin' My Mind," and we're introduced to Harry, cruisin' the Pacific Coast Highway in his red Ferrari. Immediately, you know Harry is a slicked-back sleazeball grifter thanks to the incredible ensemble the costume department has put together for him: black leather pants, a Caribbean blue satin jacket (and matching shirt), and an electric pink tie. The look is tied together with a pair of shades and an oversized "Paul E. Dangerously" cellular telephone.
Harry may look like a million bucks, but he's having trouble booking gigs for his sole client, the rock band KICKS. As a result, he's behind on his Ferrari payments (get your tissues ready) and in serious debt to Mr. Kim (John Fujioka), an Asian stereotype in a black suit and bowler hat whose appearance is accompanied by a gong sound effect. With all the professional wrestlers in this movie, it feels like WWF's Mr. Fuji (Harry Masayoshi Fujiwara) should have been cast in the role of Mr. Kim, but I digress.
Worried that Mr. Kim's enforcers (The Wild Samoans, Afa and Sika) will break every bone in his body, Harry reluctantly accepts a job finding musical acts for a political fundraiser. While making arrangements for the gig, Harry mistakes the charismatic "Quick" Rick Roberts (Piper) for a musician and hires him. When he learns that Roberts isn't a rocker but a professional wrestler, he decides to give up the music business and become his manager, booking matches for Roberts and his teammate Tonga Tom (The Tonga Kid, Sam Fatu).
Harry is thrust into the wild, wacky world of professional wrestling, going toe-to-toe with fellow managers Captain Lou Murano (Lou Albano) and homophobic dwarf Tim McClusky (Billy Barty) on Ring Talk, a talk show hosted by Vic Carson (Charles Nelson Reilly). Barty, who starred in classics like 1987's MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and 1988's WILLOW, is a legend of stage and screen, known for his short stature and high-pitched gravelly voice. Unfortunately, Barty's role in BODY SLAM isn't iconic so much as off-putting and problematic. Seated next to the openly gay Reilly, Barty's McClusky casually drops the F-word (not that one, the other one—the bad one) throughout the movie.
Before "Quick" Rick and Tonga Tom can find their mojo as a unit, they're injured by Murano's clients (and World Tag Team Champions), the Cannibals — Axe (Sione Vailahi aka The Barbarian) and Hammer (Tom Kasat aka Teijo Khan). On the outs with the music industry and the wrasslin' business, Harry turns to his love interest, Candace Vandervagen (Tanya Roberts of BEASTMASTER), for support and comes up with a brilliant idea: Rock' n' Wrestling.
Harry combines his two previous failures to make one surefire success by taking his band, now known as KICK (dropping the 's' means they've hit the big time, apparently), and his wrestlers on a cross-country tour. We get a pretty sweet montage of the gang doing time-honored wrestling feats such as "making the towns" and "drawing money." There's even a "$1000 to Pin Rick Roberts" contest where Piper sells (a true miracle) for a shaggy-bearded, bib-overalls-wearin' Haystacks Calhoun type. Oh, did I mention Meatball Lady™ (Ellen Albertini Dow) from THE WEDDING SINGER also makes an appearance as an organist? Because she does.
As you can imagine, the dynamic fusion of blistering rock licks and brutal backdrops is a massive success, spreading like wildfire across the country. It's only a matter of time until Harry and his dynamic duo earn their shot at redemption and the Cannibals' World Tag Team Championship belts on national television. The stage is set for a climactic confrontation, one that will elevate the art forms of rock 'n' roll and professional wrestling to a whole new stratosphere. As Reilly's Vic Carson says, "Now we get down to that moment of truth. Four men in the squared circle, fighting for their professional lives and the right to wear that championship belt."
But before we get there, we have to talk about a scene in which Mr. Kim [insert gong sound effect] and the Wild Samoans confront Harry in the arena parking lot. If you've never had the pleasure of witnessing Afa and Sika — in matching powder blue polyester suits — climb out of the back of a Subaru BRAT (short for "Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter," of course) and use a set of hydraulic cutting tools to threaten a man's life, you're really missing out.
Inside the arena, KICK plays their scorchin' hot hit "American Way" as the sell-out crowd gets ready to watch big men in spandex slap some meat. Numerous wrestling superstars attend the spectacle, including Bruno Sammartino, "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair, "Classy" Freddie Blassie (always a gentleman), and Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissey. In a 3-star (tops) match, "Quick" Rick and Tonga Tom go over the Cannibals with a devastating double-team maneuver, and by "devastating," I mean Tonga Kid hits a top rope dropkick on one guy, and Roberts hits a backdrop on the other to get the 1-2-3.
BODY SLAM is an entertaining piece of Sleez' n' Cheez from the Rock' n' Wrestling era. It's like Netflix's GLOW, minus the thoughtful, female-driven storytelling and fully developed characters. Sadly, unlike GLOW, the racism [insert gong sound effect], sexism, and homophobia in Needham's film isn't a critique of the era as much as an endorsement. Still, Dirk Benedict is quite fantastic as Harry, effortlessly conveying the slick, weasely flimflammer archetype of the pro wrestling promoter/manager.
Predominantly known for his work as a heel, Roddy Piper is a great underdog babyface, as is "Quick" Rick's precocious daughter Missy (Kellie Martin). The cameos by other wrestling superstars are fun, and the film even has a pretty great soundtrack, featuring Bachman Turner Overdrive, the aforementioned KICK, and Debbie Lytton, who performs the film's title track, "Body Slam." I didn't mention that John Astin, Gomez Addams himself, randomly appears as a greasy car salesman, did I!?
Initially intended for a theatrical release, BODY SLAM was unceremoniously dumped on VHS after Needham argued with screenwriters (and lawyers) Shel Lytton and Steve Burkow regarding changes to the script. Some lawsuits were filed (never work with screenwriters who are also lawyers), which prevented the film's theatrical release. It was Needham's final film.
Despite his feature film debut's failure to reach a mainstream audience, Roddy Piper would become a bonafide movie star in 1988 with a one-two punch of denim-clad cult classics: HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN and THEY LIVE. Who knows, if BODY SLAM was a smash success, we might've seen Piper replace Hulk Hogan in films like NO HOLDS BARRED, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, and SUBURBAN COMMANDO.
If you're reading this, you'll probably dig BODY SLAM. But, even if you don't, at least you'll get to see the Wild Samoans in powder blue polyester suits and "The Living Legend" Bruno Sammartino cuttin' a rug with a bodacious blonde at ringside. What more could you possibly want out of Saturday night?
You can watch BODY SLAM for free on Tubi or, if you’re a sophisticated physical media preservationist, pick up the Blu-ray on Amazon.
This article was originally published in THE ATOMIC ELBOW #34. Click here to pick up a copy of the world’s best professional wrestling zine.
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