“The only place I get hurt is out there. The world don’t give a shit about me.”

I. Well, I’m Frustrated and Outdated

The first voice you hear is a dead man’s scream. It’s one of those full-throated primal belts, like Roger Daltrey’s in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Here it’s Kevin DuBrow, his scalded screech busting the floodgates for “Bang Your Head (Metal Health),” the second single from Quiet Riot’s landmark Metal Health (1983), the first slab of fuzz ’n’ meedley to ever reach #1 on the Billboard Albums chart.

The band was at its mainstream zenith then. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was probably just getting started, years of toil finally paying off as professional wrestling graduated from the sweathouse din of high school gyms to respectable arenas in metropolitan cities. It came with a price, of course. Regional territories were swallowed by ambitious, growing monoliths. But that wouldn’t matter for a while, not even to the Ram. Luckily, he was in his prime, synchronous with the era. He was the ’80s.

Someday that would come back to haunt him, but someday was just a harmless, nebulous future. For now we’re in his past. Wisely, director Darren Aronofsky (on a Robert D. Siegel script) never shows us this past except as a collage of scattered magazines and handbills against the ghostly chatter of ringside patter and a raucous anthem that rocked a long-gone summer, growled by a man who in 2007 was silenced forever.

But Ram still struts to this hoary buzzsaw, having plucked it during its popularity and transformed it into his ring-entrance music. When the riffs kick in to summon his fist-pumping form, the crowds respond as they would at a concert. They know what’s coming: a classic blast from their childhoods, riding into town with a near-suicidal need to entertain. And the outcome is always predetermined. Once their faded hero climbs the ropes and drops that old-school Ram Jam finisher — his greatest hit — it’s over, brother.

All over.

II. I Can’t Tell Ya, Baby, What Went Wrong

As a character, the Ram’s an interesting composite of wrestlers like Hulk Hogan (Hogan suggested as much in a recent Rolling Stone feature), whose crossover appeal changed the sport forever, and also-rans like Jake “The Snake” Roberts, one of my childhood idols. Jake lacked Hogan’s oiled physique and cartoon bombast, but he’s just as legendary. Hulk was showbiz; Jake was devious, calculating, and brilliant with a microphone. Sadly, his career’s been plagued by debilitating vices and demons, and he continues to sacrifice his fiftysomething body in armories and other such cavernous shit holes. There’s a scene in The Wrestler that mirrors a confrontation in 1999’s Beyond the Mat documentary between Jake and his long-estranged daughter, Brandy, as the former attempts to make amends for a lifetime of disappointments. For all his considerable verbal skills, he somehow can’t engage his own flesh and blood. His confession seems scripted, insincere. He’s been Jake “The Snake” so long he’s emotionally unfit for any other role.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson was born Robin Ramzinski, a name that still makes him cringe. “Call me Randy,” he insists. Its continued existence is perhaps a reminder of a life purposely abandoned, and confirmation of his growing obsolescence. Not everyone remembers him. Not everyone knows him on sight. But back in the ’80s, brother, coliseums practically hummed with his name.

So Randy surrounds himself with relics of his greatness. A Ram action figure poses on his van’s dashboard. The latest technology in his decrepit trailer is a Nintendo Entertainment System console with a Ram Jam cartridge. (“This game is so old,” a young neighbor marvels while educating Randy on more recent developments, like Call of Duty 4.) He peddles videocassettes at sparsely attended signings — the manufacturer likely no longer exists or sees no need to upgrade those titles. The most recent photo he has of his grown daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), is from elementary school; the only acknowledgment of her life since then is a series of crossed-out phone numbers on the back. The snapshot itself is tucked in an old tin. “I used to try to forget about you,” he later admits to her, in the heartbreaking sequence reminiscent of Beyond the Mat (though the Ram seems more willing than the Snake to bare his anguish). “I used to try to pretend that you didn’t exist.”

He finds solace in the hit parade of his past. Our first glimpse of this is on a quiet drive home from a match, Randy at the helm of his rustbucket van — a tomb, really, and a second home whenever his landlord bolts his doors. He watches the road through a film of windshield grime; the endless hand wipes have done more harm than good. Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone),” a weepy mammoth from the band’s greatest album, Long Cold Winter (1988), reverberates through the shell. One can imagine the junior-prom perennial, its grab-ass sashay abetted by Tom Keifer’s dewy ivory, serving as a post-show comedown since Ram’s gravy days of planes and million-dollar title shots, back when everyone was in top form, even Cinderella. Twenty years later, like the Ram, they’re floating nostalgia on an endless tour. They haven’t issued a single new note in 15 years.

The Wrestler brilliantly cuts the chorus off at “gone.” It’s a word Randy can’t acknowledge. Time may have aged his body, but it does not pierce his armor.

III. You Make Me Groove

Like Ram, Pam (Marisa Tomei), too, is a soul in limbo. As her alter ego, “Cassidy,” she’s an exotic dancer at that most dangerous juncture in any career: too many birthdays. But what separates her from Randy, her favorite (and often only) customer, is that she draws a clear distinction between the necessary fiction she lives at work and her existence outside the club, although she observes the same set of rules for both, mostly to avoid getting hurt.

Pain comes anyway. The patrons of Cheeque’s decline her private-room come-ons and belittle her age. Her fellow dancers, seldom seen in action onscreen, move to the latest speaker throbs while she leans on a more reliable soundtrack that’s kept her thong stocked with singles since she was a young stunner herself, long before the disappointments and dreariness of reality, and the responsibilities of single motherhood. We know she’s sympathetic to underdogs like Randy just from her song choices: deep metal-album cuts as opposed to chart-strutters (most of the strippers I caught during my brief gentleman’s club heyday used KissSmashes, Thrashes & Hits on permanent shuffle), the dustier chestnuts that didn’t get the play they deserved.

FireHouse — not to be confused with Mike Watt and George Hurley’s post-Minutemen outfit fIREHOSE — had the misfortune to rise during the twilight of ’80s metal, when corn-dog riffs were slowly conceding to mumbling plod. Their self-titled 1990 debut is rife with formula buffoonery, led by the shameless calculation of “Don’t Treat Me Bad” and the by-now-ubiquitous Metal Ballad, “Love of a Lifetime” — the band’s biggest hit, naturally. “Don’t Walk Away” was dumped near disc’s end in a chasm between singles, a wasteland not likely explored by the average fan. Nineteen years and seven albums later, FireHouse’s legacy has been cruelly reduced to budget-priced compilations and occasional appearances on nostalgia packages. How many people know they still even exist?

The Scorpions, of course, have had much better luck. By the time FireHouse launched, these dudes had already released 13 albums. “Cassidy” dips way back for her final dance, to the title track of 1980’s Animal Magnetism, a record better remembered today for its controversial man/woman/Doberman sleeve than for any of its songs, save “The Zoo.” The band wouldn’t reach its commercial peak Stateside until the one/two punch of Blackout (1982) and Love at First Sting (1984), home to “No One Like You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” respectively. The Scorpions forge on, having weathered seismic jolts in music, seemingly none the worse for wear. But more importantly, they’re survivors like Ram and Pam, whose dance is just beginning.

 

IV. I Knew Right from the Start You’d Put an Arrow through My Heart

Ram and Pam have more in common than the latter will admit. She struggles to maintain a professional distance, but there’s something about this damaged lug. When he suffers a heart attack following a particularly brutal “extreme” match with the Necro Butcher (a respectful gentleman backstage, a sadistic terror in the ring), he goes to her. She’s touched yet stricken by this violation of the unspoken dancer/customer contract. He has family, doesn’t he? A daughter? Why unburden your troubles to a virtual stranger whose entire shtick is the pretense of intimacy?

But succumb she does, to become his only real friend, someone apparently uninterested in his career, if she was ever aware of it at all. She helps him re-establish contact with his child after a semi-disastrous reunion by helping him shop for clothes, i.e., a suitable peace offering. He asks if he can call her Pam. She tells him not to get used to it. But there’s a spark, however faint.

They bond one afternoon over a couple beers and one of those jukebox songs that always manage to pop up at just the right time. This one links both to their glory days, when they were young and indestructible. They discover a shared affection for the ’80s’ (somewhat) rougher edges as hewn by Ratt’s “Round and Round,” the band’s breakout hit from ’84. “Tightened our belts,” sang Stephen Pearcy in his bluesy, bratty rap, “abused ourselves.” The Ram certainly identified with that.

Neither pays attention to much recorded after about 1990, the beginning of a considerably rough decade for both. Randy’s stock began to ebb as middle age took hold and younger, flashier figures arrived to capitalize on a multi-million dollar industry built by warhorses like him. Pam likely found those years just as difficult in a vocation obsessed with a youth impossible to maintain. “Round and Round,” therefore, is a shared memory that evokes not hollow nostalgia but genuine experience.

RAM: Goddamn, they don’t make ’em like they used to.

PAM: Fuckin’ ’80s, man. Best shit ever.

RAM: Bet your ass, man. Guns ‘N’ Roses fuckin’ rules.

PAM: Crüe

RAM: Yeah.

PAM: Def Lep

RAM: Then that Cobain pussy had to come in and ruin it all.

PAM: Like there’s something wrong with wanting to have a good time!

That was — and still is — a common generalization about music’s murkier turn. It was one likely expressed by Ratt themselves. They didn’t survive the rise of Nirvana, led by that mewling Kurt Cobain in his lumberjack jammies. Neither did Cinderella. Nor did anyone who espoused the “Nothin’ But a Good Time” mantra. Metal’s supremacy was at an end. Although the so-called “grunge” movement (as a longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, I naturally tag that word in quotes after shuddering) openly loathed its predecessor’s processed cheese and would’ve been delighted to have pulled the trigger, the truth is that by 1991 metal was shopworn and tired and in need of a long, long nap. Popularity is prelude to obscurity. Relevance is doomed to irrelevance. It’s a weary cliché, but a painful lesson: Nothing lasts forever.

V. Where Everything Was As Fresh As the Bright Blue Sky

 

The musical upheaval was an ugly one, as gnarly as the overthrowing tones. Released in 1990, Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” exemplified all that was great and loathsome about what pundits had quickly declared “butt rock,” as parlayed by “hair bands”: toothless entendres and brainless silicone. For many, it was the last straw.

The two warring factions were embodied by relative newcomers Nirvana, whose “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was greeted as potpourri in a pigsty in 1991, and Guns N’ Roses, whose prickly snarl had reshaped metal’s dangerous curves on Appetite for Destruction (1987). A hiccup of historic coincidence would link them on the front lines. Both were signed to the David Geffen Company, and both released albums within a week of each other in the fall of 1991. Use Your Illusion arrived first; Nirvana followed with Nevermind.

They were complete opposites in every sense. Illusion was bloat-loaded with pomp, testosterone, and misogyny, two discs of excessive offense, the accumulated hubris of a pampered Svengali. Nevermind was sinewy with cathartic release, a retaliatory roar from the silenced and oppressed. The two obviously couldn’t co-exist. Bandleaders Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain sniped at each other in the press. Although only five years separated them, they seemed a generation apart. Cobain was seen as a hungry upstart, Rose a broken-down dinosaur who’d been famous too long. Lines were drawn posthaste: drunken fuckheads here, brittle poets here. There were occasional attempts at détente. “Can’t we like both?” someone asked. The answer — publicly, at least — was no. Something had to give.

Randy finds himself at a similar crossroads. His weakened heart’s forced him into retirement, but, y’know, it’s not so bad. He enjoys the anonymity of a deli-counter supermarket gig; to its patrons he’s just a leathery slab in a hairnet. There’s no pressure to be the Ram, or even a Randy — his nametag reads “Robin,” the moniker from his W4. He’s carefully rebuilding a relationship with the daughter he alienated, and Pam seems to like him too. But the Ram is never far from the surface, and once he returns, like any good wrestler, he destroys.

It begins when Pam, confused by a torrent of conflicting emotions, rebuffs his overtures at a deeper relationship. Hurt, he retreats to the only arms that have always embraced him: the squared circle, the up-and-comers weaned on his legend, the crowd that drowns him in love. A reckless rendezvous with a particularly freaky fan results in a forgotten dinner date with Stephanie, driving her away for good. Not even his job offers escape after a customer recognizes him as that “wrestler from the ’80s.” Watching Robin Ramzinski flail desperately through the aisles and out the door is like witnessing a final transformation. Robin and the Ram cannot co-exist. Something has to give.

Randy makes some phone calls and resumes preparing for a match (shaving his pits and dying his locks to Accept’s 1984 revenge stomper “Balls to the Wall,” perhaps subconsciously nodding at Udo Dirkschneider’s lava-lung admonishment, “Watch the damned/God bless ya/They’re gonna break their chains”) to end all matches: the 20th anniversary of his storied Madison Square Gardens title showdown with ’80s heel and nemesis, the Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), who in reality is a genial Phoenix car salesman named Bob. Long retired from active grappling, Bob’s exhumed his turban for a final go-round just for kicks. The Ram, however, has come home. He says as much to Pam, who, in typical movie fashion, arrives at the venue moments before his ring entrance, pleading with him to think of his heart. “The only place I get hurt is out there,” he tells her. “The world don’t give a shit about me.” “I’m here,” she counters. But it’s not enough.

Tonight his ring music is special. “Bang Your Head” is gone, replaced with “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” an anthem from Guns N’ Roses’ hungrier years, when Axl was a lean, mean, rotten-teeth dervish with something to prove. This third single from Appetite for Destruction, their 1987 debut, was their first #1 hit, a milestone reached more than a year after the album’s release. The song details Rose’s relationship with then-paramour Erin Everly (poetry abetted by a devilish riff from guitarist Slash, who some 20 years later would quietly punctuate The Wrestler’s drama with a pensive acoustic undercurrent), but could just as easily provide the Ram’s own epitaph better than the track written specifically for him by Bruce Springsteen (“Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the fields so happy and free?/If you’ve ever seen a one-trick pony, then you’ve seen me” — Randy would never be so open):

She’s got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky

The paradox, of course, is that as he parades down the ramp into his house of worship, he’s leaving “she” far behind. It’s his farewell to her, to his daughter, to everyone. When Axl finally asks, “Where do we go now?” only Randy knows the answer. It starts with an ascent to the top rope, to linger beneath the lights, to savor their soothing warmth. The wily vet gives his people, those boisterous hundreds who never lost faith, those anonymous faces comprising the only family he’s known, the signal they know so well. Then he drops that old-school Ram Jam finisher — his greatest hit — and it’s over, brother.

All over.