With his python in tow, retired pro wrestler Jake the Snake Roberts struts into a sold out Baltimore Arena for an appearance on WWE’s Old School Raw. The crowd goes silent, and the four wrestlers in the ring stop fighting to watch Roberts approach with an irrepressible grin. Roberts, who’d long ago been excommunicated by the WWE, has finally come back from a gut-wrenching, and very public, fight with alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, and chronic physical pain. He comes bearing a message for this national audience: If you’re willing to work hard and surround yourself with people who have faith in you, you can overcome any obstacle. Against the odds, Roberts seems to be winning.
This scene, and the message, is at the heart of the new documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, directed by Steve Yu and produced Diamond Dallas Page — the former wrestling champion turned yoga scion. The biopic is funny, heartbreaking, surreal, and, for a story about pro wrestlers, surprisingly candid. Like the backstory, the film is one of a kind.
In 2012, Page’s business was in trouble. The retired wrestler had invested $500,000 of his own money to create and market DDP Yoga — the exercise system that he developed while rehabbing from a catastrophic back injury suffered in 1998. But he had little to show for it. Except, that is, for a 47-year-old disabled Gulf War veteran named Arthur Boorman who shed 140 pounds while practicing DDP Yoga.
Boorman’s oldest son, Warren, filmed those daily workouts and posted them to YouTube. Yu, the president of DDP Yoga and an aspiring documentary filmmaker, looked to make the clip part of their marketing strategy but knew it couldn’t “feel like a clip about DDP Yoga, but about a guy who discovers that he can do or become anything he sets his mind to.” In other words, he wanted a real documentary short. Yu posted the video to Reddit and six days later, it hit No. 1. By the end of the month, DDP Yoga had sold $600,000 worth of DVDs.
Not long after the Boorman video hit big, Page caught word that Roberts — his old friend and mentor — was holed up in a ramshackle Gainesville, Texas, prefab, drinking and smoking crack. Roberts never held a world title — he wrestled in an era dominated by Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior — but he was a legend nonetheless. He played the role of the heel that you loved to hate with a style that hadn’t been seen before or since. His recreational use of alcohol and cocaine turned into feverish addictions; he became depressed; his kids refused to see to him; his weight ballooned to 380 pounds, and his joints went stiff. Unless he found help, Roberts would most certainly wind up dead.
But when Page called and offered his help, Roberts was dismissive, but “when he asked me what I weighed, I told him three hundred and eight,” Roberts recalls. “Dallas couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘What are you doing fucking three hundred and eighty pounds? You can’t carry that shit. You gotta be miserable.’ Finally I was honest with him. I told him, ‘Yeah, well, I don’t feel real good.’ The longer he talked, the more honest I was.”
Not long after, Page and Yu made the trip to Texas. Roberts was in worse shape than they’d imagined — he could hardly move. He agreed to try Page’s exercise plan, though, and in the first weeks he often woke up in the morning and did his DDP Yoga before spending the rest of the day smoking crack. Despite his habits, Roberts managed to lose 25 pounds during his first month on the program. Page hatched the idea of moving the struggling friend into his house in Suburban Atlanta. Yu told Page he wanted to document Roberts’s recovery.
By then, Page’s home had become a clubhouse for friends, neighbors, and a select few fans of DDP yoga, which could be described as now having a cult following. Every morning Page leads a small group in an intense, hour-long yoga workout. Page invited Roberts to move in and stay until he got his life back on track. He was allowed to stay, rent free, as long as he was clean. Page put Roberts on a gluten-free, dairy-free, GMO-free diet. They saw immediate results, but Jake had a hard time quitting his old habits. A week after arriving at the crib, Roberts was found shoeless and blacked out in the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport baggage claim.
He relapsed six times over the next 18 months, but Roberts eventually made 90 days of sobriety. While staying sober was a battle, his body was slowly returning to its old form. “We wrapped him in a cocoon of positivity,” says Yu. Because he works with Page, Yu was frequently forced to confront Roberts on his erratic behavior. He noticed that Jake relapsed when Page left town. “It was a hard line to figure out. I grew up watching Jake, so calling him out was uncomfortable. I knew how it would play out if nobody did anything to help.”
Yu and Page filmed for two years as Roberts — with the help of friends, family, and wrestling fans — fought his way from has-beens to freshly minted members of the WWE Hall of Fame. The struggles are real, and there are moments when the film is tough to stomach, whether it’s an encounter with a severely drunken Roberts at a baggage counter, or listening to his trials with verbal and sexual abuse by his parents.
The movie debuted last January at Slamdance Film Festival during a period of unprecedented change for Page and Yu. Page’s wife is battling cancer. He’s also just opened up the massive and gleaming “DDP Yoga Performance Center” and has plans to launch a mobile app this fall. Yu and Page also have more documentaries in production. For the past few months, though, Page has put all of that on the back burner while he tours the country with Roberts, screening the movie for sold out theaters in big cities all over the country.
Page claims that a big cable network offered him piles of money for the movie, but he refused. “They didn’t seem to understand the passion that wrestling fans and devotees to DDP Yoga have,” he says. It’s a movie about addiction and recovery, the power of positive thinking, and male companionship. Just like the guys who made it, this is a movie with a ton of heart.