Much like the life of the mammoth pro wrestling personality it profiles, “Nature Boy” is both a celebration and a warning siren for would-be aspirants to fame and fortune. The latest installment of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series is under no delusion that Ric Flair didn’t enjoy (or at many points, bask in) his popularity as one of the biggest pro athletes in the world. But Rory Karpf‘s film also provides some helpful and needed context for the man that he was when he wasn’t landing pile drives. Those two figures may have eventually blurred together to the point of being unrecognizable, but the film does an admirable job of trying to distinguish between the two.
In true biographical fashion, “Nature Boy” charts Flair’s upbringing in an adoptive home, through his less-than-stellar academic career, to the origins of his wrestling superstardom. Eventually embracing a career that he initially shied away from, “Nature Boy” shows how the wrestler’s taste for the limelight and all the supposed perks that came with it quickly subsumed any doubts he had about the physical and mental toll the job would take on him and his family.
Through interviews with Flair (68 years old and a few months removed from a major medical scare) and his associates at various stages of his life, the film doesn’t indulge in too much “woe is me” revisionism. There’s something enlightening about Flair’s particular laughter, even in the face of stories about rampant infidelity and functional alcoholism. But “Nature Boy” is as illuminating of Flair’s personal life as it is the culture that helped elevate all of his personality traits to being worthy of superstar status.
For those predisposed to not caring about the world of pro wrestling, “Nature Boy” might not make many converts. There’s a care that the film takes in showing the physical preparation needed to succeed at the highest level in any form of pro wrestling, whether you choose to categorize the action itself as “fake” or “rehearsed” (or “choreographed,” as Flair prefers). But Karpf demonstrates the same kind of respect and recognition of spectacle that helped foster Flair’s popularity and his inability to stay away from trying to feed it.
When detailing Flair’s rise through the pro wrestling world, becoming a mainstay of World Championship Wrestling (WCW), his womanizing, casual misogyny, and frat house sexual harassment, all still carry with them a patina of inevitability, as if anyone in his position would act that way. The most compelling parts of “Nature Boy” are when Flair, and the film as a result, reckons with the things that can’t be explained away by being products of their times. When the film arrives at real moment of introspection towards its close, that’s when the film wisely sheds its outer layers of hagiography for some real self-examination.
“Ric is a consummate liar,” explains long time WWE superstar Triple H as the film makes that transition. “Nature Boy” maintains a certain amount of distance from completely indulging in everything Flair says as fact. With every boast or confession, whether in archival footage or with present-day perspective, there’s a tiny bit of apprehensiveness that what the audience is getting from Flair is the complete 100% truth.
Karpf underscores this idea with a select number of animated sequences to reenact some of Flair’s flashback anecdotes. In addition to providing a slight visual change-up, it also hints at the idea that some of these tales might be more storybook than history book. It’s a technique that worked well for some of the mythologizing in Michael Bonfiglio’s Bo Jackson “30 for 30” entry “You Don’t Know Bo,” but here it feels more essential to understanding the full picture of Flair’s past. It’s a literal colorful portrayal of a character whose history lends itself easily.
Aside from the animation, there’s nothing much in “Nature Boy” to distinguish it from the normal “30 for 30” house style, including a gratuitous use of ESPN personalities to explain Flair’s relevance to a growing generation. (One of the most insightful talking head testimonials belongs to Snoop Dogg: “We’ve always held him high in the black community because Ric is one of us.”)
Flair’s traditional entrance music, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the Richard Strauss composition made famous by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” also weaves its way through “Nature Boy.” Rather than use the full orchestrated version of the piece, it appears mostly in far more humble, single-instrument arrangements sprinkled throughout. It’s an apt metaphor for the film overall: a remembrance of a more vibrant time in a much different context. “Ric Flair” is a creation that hasn’t necessarily diminished with time, but one whose bombast deserves a renewed consideration. By taking some of the focus off of his in-the-ring exploits, “Nature Boy” can’t re-write the wrongs of Flair’s personal life, but it can show the dangers of conflating the man and the myth.
“Nature Boy” airs Tuesday, November 7 at 10 p.m. on ESPN.