REVIEW: DARK SIDE OF THE RING – Brian Pillman
The third season of VICE’s Dark Side of the Ring premiered Thursday night with a two-hour documentary on Brian Pillman that was a mixture of passion, tragedy, and heartbreak.
The story of Pillman could be commissioned for its own series and have no shortage for several seasons. His upbringing alone was marred by dozens of throat surgeries, some of which forced him to remain silent for weeks. He excelled at both hockey and football with a reputation that grew as an undersized athlete that outworked the field to earn his spot. It’s the early traits he exhibited that help inform his final years when he was told he would never be the same after the Humvee wreck, or that his drug use was escalating out of control. This was someone that had defied logic and prognosis his entire life, so why stop at 35?
While wrestling was the backdrop and the source of Pillman’s drive, the documentary takes a deeper analysis of those closest to Pillman, whose lives were life shattered after his October 1997 death. The scenes involving son Brian Pillman Jr., and daughters Brittany and Dani are heart-wrenching as they outlined the neglect and reckless behavior of their mother, Melanie. Pillman’s widow appeared in the documentary for a rare interview she granted about her life and history with Brian. When Liam O’Rourke wrote his excellent “Crazy Like a Fox” biography of Pillman in 2017, Melanie did not participate and doesn’t come off well in the book.
To her credit, Melanie owns a lot of her mistakes and admits to the drug and alcohol abuse, the toll of which is evident. However, one of the most difficult scenes of the documentary was hearing Brian Jr. explain how he never had a father to throw a football with, largely grew up without parents, and suffered incredible physical and mental abuse from his stepfather, who Melanie married after Brian’s death. This included the horrifying description of the dogs being trained to keep Brian Jr. in his room and attack, if necessary. It is through those descriptions that made it more remarkable that Brian Jr. has attempted to mend his relationship with Melanie.
The re-enactment of the funeral where the children are described as unaware of what is fully happening, then saying goodbye to “Daddy” is as emotional as it sounds. Keep in mind that when Brian died that Dani was seven years old, Brittany was six, and Brian Jr. was only four.
If you’re not familiar with the Brian Pillman story, it’s a fascinating life he lived and one that Jim Ross summarized succinctly in his advice to Brian Jr. to take the positive traits from his father and avoid the negative ones at all cost. I found similarities between Pillman and Randy Savage watching their respective docs this week with both fueled by a level of paranoia in an industry that will eat you alive with that mindset. The core difference was the impression that Savage always seemed consumed with the fear that someone was out to get him and being extremely guarded while Pillman aspired to be the ringleader that had the industry under his thumb, which he found intoxicating.
Kim Wood was the character most will gravitate towards as a natural showman and an essential voice for any Pillman-related story. The other name that would fall into that category is Bruce Hart, who was very influential in Pillman’s life and throughout the Loose Cannon persona with Pillman leaning on Hart as a mentor from their days together in Stampede Wrestling.
Jim Ross was exceptional and forthright in his assessment of Pillman’s demise with the chilling conclusion he arrived at stating, “I failed” regarding shifting Pillman into a better direction. The fact is, Pillman was not going to be dictated to and was consumed by a pride of his work that would not allow him to take a self-perceived “lesser role” such as commentary when he was hired for his physical contributions.
Today’s industry is far better equipped and reactive when a performer is displaying problematic warning signs. Pillman’s were loud and clear from the concern that led to the drug test he was so upset over, crashing multiple rental cars, and the weight of the world he must have felt coming to grips with his physical deterioration at age 35 with a family to support.
There is also the subject of his emotional state as he goes through a six-month period where his ex-girlfriend Rochelle takes her life in October 1995 that Pillman took extremely hard, followed by the Humvee wreck the following April.
It would be impossible to leave this episode with an endearing reaction to the WWF’s handling of Pillman’s death, specifically the usage of Melanie Pillman the night after his passing on Raw. Vince McMahon’s interview with Melanie has been the source of much criticism since it aired, and interview subjects Jim Ross and Jim Cornette were not shy in sharing their disgust. Melanie added to the negative sentiment by informing the audience that she had requested that Vince avoid any drug discussion because of the pending autopsy report and not having those answers, a request that was ignored on the air.
One unsung hero for the Pillman family is Les Thatcher, who spearheaded the Brian Pillman Memorial Shows beginning in 1998 and helped raise $125,000 for the family. The shows became a major highlight of the year and the rare instance of WWF, WCW, and ECW talent working on the same shows.
There was a shining light throughout in Linda Pillman, who took significant measures to assist in the raising of the children. It is such an intense episode that the levity provided during the scene about Brian Jr. being fearful of spiders was a welcome change in tone to allow the audience to exhale for a moment from the darkness the latter years of Pillman’s life were steeped in.
The Dark Side of the Ring team has continued to display an ability to carefully navigate complex and tragic stories while avoiding the trappings of an exploitive piece. Rather than feeling like an expose, the shared experiences of Brian’s children felt as though it was therapeutic for those involved and that extends to Melanie Pillman.
So much of Pillman’s professional legacy surrounds the question of “What if?” He had the industry at his fingertips and was poised to achieve every goal he set out to achieve – a big contract, the main event position, and security for life. The Humvee wreck compromised all those goals. He still landed the contract that brought him to the doorstep of the Attitude Era but physically couldn’t last.
The lessons of Brian Pillman are contradictory – he both exceeded and outperformed the limitations placed upon him, while also succumbing to the pitfalls of excess and not exercising enough limits in his life.