The female wrestling league and television powerhouse G.L.O.W. (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling) epitomized the glorious and deplorable excess of the 1980s in its shamelessness, glitz, and big hair, as well as in its theatrical, sweat-stained, tongue-in-cheek role-playing. It reflected the prejudices, fears, fantasies, and stereotypes of its time even as it toyed with them and occasionally even subverted them. G.L.O.W. was about a whole lot more than wrestling or even sports: It was about politics, race, sex, gender, and power, and about who controls narratives about women’s bodies and desires. The brief but influential heyday of Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling doesn’t exactly cry out for a serious treatment, but GLOW, a surprisingly moving and thoroughly entertaining exploration of the league/television show’s strange life and mysterious death, suggests there might be too much story for a single documentary, especially one that runs a brisk 76 minutes. This material could have been shaped in myriad different ways, but the filmmakers ultimately fashion GLOW as a coming-of-age story about a very strange but important rite of passage in a group of women’s lives. That proves fundamentally effective, though a little reductive, given the wealth of rich, juicy themes at play here.
GLOW follows the notorious grappling league from its Reagan-era founding as a kitschy female answer to the testosterone-poisoned World Wrestling Federation through its mysterious cancellation in 1990, when it disappeared abruptly at the height of its popularity amid rumors that Pia Zadora—the then-wife of mogul Meshulam Riklis, who funded much of the league—ordered her husband to end the TV show after discovering him philandering with some of the wrestlers. The G.L.O.W. phenomenon centered on the league’s signature syndicated television show, a kitschy, Vegas-style riot of Laugh-In-esque sketches, raps, songs, tiny outfits, storylines, and, yes, sometimes even wrestling.
GLOW hints at enormous darkness and dysfunction just beyond the frame: stormy relationships between the league’s primary creative forces and women being verbally abused and bullied into maintaining the impossible body standards the league demanded. But it never delves too deep into the problematic elements of sexism and racism that complicated the show’s prevailing line of strong, liberated women and female empowerment. For a documentary about a glitzy pop-culture phenomenon of the ’80s, GLOW is almost perversely short on sex and drugs, though its unexpected wholesomeness is attributable partially to its decision to focus on the charismatic central figure of “Mt. Fiji,” a universally beloved icon of the league whose intimidating physical presence belies heartbreaking sweetness and generosity. Everybody in the documentary adores Mt. Fiji, who has maintained her ebullient spirit despite physical deterioration that has necessitated years in a nursing home.
GLOW only tells part of a sprawling, complicated, and contradictory story, but the light it sheds on this half-forgotten cultural touchstone is both revelatory and fascinating. As befits a superior wrestling documentary, GLOW cunningly and shamelessly manipulates audience emotions for maximum impact.
Key features: Tons of great bonus features help make up for the film’s abbreviated running time, including sketches, raps, music videos, and tons of deleted scenes. The only disappointing feature is an audio commentary featuring rock star Billy Corgan and some G.L.O.W. veterans that’s surprisingly stiff and dull.