“Ringling Bros. Circus: the Final Farewell” Documentary Review

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Feld Entertainment proudly presents Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! Welcome to the greatest show on earth!” For nearly a century and a half (146yrs), THE circus was an American institution that began with storied entertainer P.T. Barnum and later bought by John Ringling followed by the Feld family, whom would produce the circus for its last 50yrs. Prior to (what would eventually become known as) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (from hereon out referred to as RBBBC), America did not have a concept of what a traveling live entertainment show was. There was certainly live entertainment prior to RBBBC, but you had to be fortunate enough to live or visit the cities where the shows were. What made the RBBBC unique was the fact it traveled by train to cities nationwide delivering the greatest show on earth to ladies, gentleman, and children of all ages. Much like the US space program indirectly impacted our lives at home, the office, and in the car through the prolific space spinoff technologies, RBBBC’s influences on live and themed entertainment are far reaching. From technical theatre technology to advertising to stunts and beyond. Nearly every live entertainment show can trace elements of its roots back to the circus. Once packing out tents turned arenas, in the last few years of the circus, the numbers began to shrink. And eventually it was decided to make the hard decision to close the circus after its final performance in May 2017. The documentary The Final Farewell chronicles the final performance of the American institution as it invites you to be in awe and wonder of the talent and technology on display that inspired imaginations for nearly 150 years. It airs on AXS-TV on Memorial Day at 8pm EDT. Learn just why this truly was the greatest show on earth, and why the performers and technicians truly felt that it was a community, a town without a zip code that will forever be missed.

Two years ago, RBBBC saw its final performance in Uniondale, NY (NYC area). This was the last time long-standing ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson would say goodbye to the audiences that clapped, cheered, and applauded the experience of being mesmerized by the spectacle of the circus. After nearly 150 years, it was difficult for the cast, crew, and American people to fully comprehend that this was the last time RBBBC’s iconic train would pull into the station to bring the circus to the eager audience. After pioneering the very concept of touring live entertainment, the circus finally came to a close, and with it, the end of an American icon. This documentary, that has been more than two years in the making, provides audiences with an up close and personal look at the timeless magic of the circus through intimate interviews with cast and crew, footage of the final performance, and archival photographs and video.

Documentaries are challenged to make a strong emotional connection with the audience; otherwise, they may fall into talking head or Wikipedia territory. This emotional connection is often accomplished through the use of subtext, a compelling score, artfully crafted images, and a script. A script? Precisely. Perhaps you are under the impression that a documentary is written in post-production, but that is not entirely true. A significant amount of work goes into producing a documentary that will evoke emotion and empathy at will, months or years before the camera shoots the first footage. Much of this work is accomplished through the effective use of a script (or strong outline). The script serves as the map between the idea or origin of the documentary and the destination. I say map because just like a roadmap (even GPS ones), there are opportunities to take an unexpected exit or explore a tourist stop that was not foreseen when the route was first plotted. Unlike the track on the Tomorrowland Speedway, you can veer off course in the event that something catches your eye. Spending a substantive amount of time in the pre-production stage of a doc also allows the director (or producer) to decide what kind of documentary the story should be. There are six types of documentaries: poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative.

  • Poetic: Focus on experiences, images, and showing the audience the world through a different set of eyes. The ultimate goal is to create a feeling rather than truth.
  • Expository: Closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” These aim to inform and/or persuade — often through omnipresent “Voice of God” narration over footage.
  • Observational: Also known as cinema verite (veritas, Greek for truth), these aim to simply observe the world around them. The style attempts to give voice to all sides of an issue by giving audiences first hand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments.
  • Participatory: While having elements of Observational and Expository, include the filmmaker within the narrative. The filmmaker directly influences the major actions of the narrative.
  • Reflexive: Often include the filmmaker within the film; however, unlike Participatory, they make no attempts to explore an outside subject.
  • Performative: An experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response to the world. Often called the “Michael Moore” style of doc.

Before you begin to think that this article is all about how to make a documentary–don’t worry–but being familiar with the different style of docs will help to understand my critique of The Final Farewell. At the end of the day, this documentary is highly informative, containing some fantastic footage and interviews. Unfortunately, it lacks direction. The doc framing devices oscillate between a focus on the final show and the rich history of the RBBBC. Individually, both of these approaches to the doc work well; but switching between the two, takes away from the full emotional potential. There are times that it is highly expository but then it switches mid-act to observational and even becomes performative at times. It’s important for a documentary to select one type of doc style, and stick to it, otherwise the audience may lose focus and thus mitigates the desired emotional response from the audience. For those whom worked on or with the circus, there is certainly a nostalgic magic at play in this doc, but I think that some of the magic is lost on those whom did not have a personal connection to the greatest show. Had the documentary chosen to focus on the final show and the issues that led to the hard decision to close the circus after 146 years or chosen to focus on the history and evolution of the circus from its earliest days with P.T. Barnum to the Feld Family, by taking the audience on a journey that ended with the final performance, then I feel that there would have been a stronger emotional connection between the doc and the general audience. Whereas most of the interviews are framed in a traditional manner, there are a handful of recurring interviews wherein the interviewee looks directly at the camera. Any first year film student will tell you that this is never how a documentary interview should be shot unless chosen for artistic reasons that advance the plot. All that said, there are quite a few elements that work very well. There is a powerful documentary in there somewhere, but the lack of direction keeps it from reaching its full potential.

If there is one message that The Final Farewell drives home–and effectively so–is the very real community that existed between the cast (both people and animals) and crew while on and off the tracks. As familiar with the circus as I am, I had no idea that entire families traveled together, that there were schools and even a daycare on board the train. Furthermore, there was a commissary, barber/salon, restaurant and more. All that was missing was a post office. Unlike other traveling shows, including Feld Entertainment’s Disney on Ice, Sesame Street Live, and upcoming Jurassic World Live Tour, these performers went home every night as opposed to staying in hotel after hotel. Crazy, right?!? I found it utterly fascinating. Never thought of the RBBBC families literally having the train be their home for most of the year. For kids who grew up in the circus, this is the only home they ever knew. So, having your only home taken away from you, must have been devastating if not traumatizing. THAT is a story that I would have loved to have heard. It’s this very sense of community that the general audience can empathize with because none of us want to think of our livelihoods, let alone, homes being taken away from us. RBBBC was truly a world in and of itself. Not only was it the greatest show on earth, it was also the greatest home and career that these performers ever knew or perhaps will ever know. According to the many interviews, the feeling of community was strong. To be in Ringling Bros. was considered to be the apex of a career in the performing circus arts. And it is clear that everyone associated with this American institution will miss it.

Although there are dozens of acts in the circus, The Final Farewell focusses on Ringmaster Iverson, big cat trainers, dog trainers, motorbike acrobats, trapeze artists, Paolo, and the iconic clowns. The active embrace of diversity was a constant theme through the interviews. From Iverson winning the role of Ringmaster to became the first African-American to hold the coveted spot in 1998 to the attachment of acts from around the globe to highlight different talents, cultures, and people in ways that were positive, uplifting, and impactful, diversity ran strong. Not mentioned in this doc, RBBBC also broke the glass ceiling when the first female Ringmaster was cast for Circus Extreme (co-running at the same time as Out of this World). So many wonderful opportunities were created for a wide range of talented performers and technicians. Lots of firsts associated with the circus. It is clear from the interviews that everyone absolutely loved working for the circus. And that enthusiasm can be felt at times through the doc. In addition to the interviews, there are dozens of minutes of footage of the spectacular performances, dazzling costumes, and the smiling faces of the audience at the arena. But the footage and interviews are not contained to the show itself, there are many moments that take you to Feld Entertainment Studios to meet the costume and set designers that craft the show experience that the performers bring to life.

One of the items of interest conspicuously missing from the documentary, is any time spent exploring why RBBBC closed. The only reference to one of the reasons for the closure is a comment from Iverson asking the audience if the circus is antiquated. And of course, there is a resounding NO from the audience. A well-written documentary should address any elephants in the room. It’s no secret that RBBBC came under increasing scrutiny from PETA and other animal rights groups in recent years, and that the constant propaganda and petitions had an affect on the audience numbers. In terms of the animal treatment, whereas the earliest versions of the circus in the days of P.T. Barnum did not place extreme pride in animal care, RBBBC took great care in providing a rich and full life for the animal performers. Each and every animal was treated like royalty by their trainers, handlers, and owners. But I feel it was a missed opportunity for this documentary to address the issue of the animals (most prominently the elephants) and how outside forces did have an impact on the audience numbers. It would have been a great opportunity to tell this side of the story that the headlines so often neglected.

Prepare yourself for a documentary that is larger than life as you peek inside the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! If you have been a fan of the circus from the time you were a kit to an adult, then you will find so much to like in this doc-film. I don’t foresee any Emmys for this doc next award season, but it’s still a fascinating exploration of the town without a zip code, the greatest show on earth.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Sky’s the Limit at Cirque Vertigo at Busch Gardens

If you missed Cirque Vertigo last week at Busch Gardens’ Real Music Series during the park’s 60th Anniversary, don’t panic! It is coming back at the end of the Real Music series. This highly popular limited engagement was a packed house at each show. For those who miss the touring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for all its death-defying acrobatics, then you are in for a treat! Returning for the final week of Real Music Real Masters series, Cirque Vertigo featuring the famous Wallenda Duo March 11-16. As none of the Real Music Real Masters shows run on Sunday, for those of us whom work Monday-Friday, make sure you catch the show on Saturday at either 11:30 or 1:30. Seriously, this show fills up faster than Fantasmic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. And with good reason. It’s a limited run and is an absolutely spectacular extravaganza.

I cannot mention enough the importance of picking up a FREE show ticket (that essentially means you have A seat) before the show. The show WILL FILL UP. I imagine that the second run of the show will be even more popular because of all the Twitter and Instagram activity during the first run. So, you have a few weeks to plan your next visit.

At approximately 45-minutes, this is a long theme park show, but it is high impact the whole time. Cirque Vertigo has it all–comedy, acrobatics, audience interaction, and adrenaline pumping music! The show opens with a hilarious monologue and giant ball-spinning act by the emcee. This is a great transition from arriving at the theatre to the show because some tensions were high with the chaotic loading of the theatre. Comedy is a great way to calm down those who may be frustrated that they didn’t get the seat they hoped they would get. Throughout the show, the emcee proves audiences with some laughs between the balancing and acrobatic acts. Although much of his humor is self-deprecating, there is no question that he has some great talent for balancing large objects, Chinese yoyo tricks, and more.

The first act involves spinning lights lots of mindblowing balancing acts. All are fascinating to watch! As the lights fly by, the trail left behind the lights displays the Real Music series logo. This act is a combination of light spinning and gymnastics. Following the light spinning, another acrobat brings out a huge wire frame cube and spins and balances it. Pretty sure that cube was taller than the performer. By far the most impressive routine in the opening was the balancing act on the silver cylindrical shapes. As I am not a circus performer, I am not certain of the proper name for those elements of the act.

The second act takes extreme hula hooping to the next level! I have difficulty just hula-ing with one hoop let alone dozens! The first part of the routine involves juggling hula hoops in a fantastically choreographed routine followed by hula-ing dozens and dozens of hula-hoops.

The third act takes you to the sky as the silks falls from the ceiling and the acrobat ascends! Silk routines are among my favorite at Cirque or Circus shows. There is an incredible beauty to how the acrobat moves up and down the silks. It is clear where the show got its name because of all the vertically aligned acts that reach for the sky. More so than the other acts, this one stands out as aerial interpretive dancing–an experimental ballet suspended above the stage.

Act four starts on the ground, then towers to the rafters. The same acrobat that balanced the giant cube before is back with a different geometric shape. This time, he impresses the audience with incredible feats of balance and movement with the ring. There is literally nothing that this guy can do with the ring. Personally, my favorite routine was spinning on the round and rolling around the stage in it. Following the ring routine, the next acrobat stacks chairs more than 30ft in the air (maybe even higher) and does a handstand! Phenomenal! Such a magnificent display of acrobatic prowess.

The fifth and final act before the finale features the Wallenda Duo! I’ve seen trapeze routines, high-wire acts, and other circus staples, but I’ve never seen a circus act like this one before. With a vertically aligned bar suspended from the trusses, the Wallenda Duo mesmerizes the audience with a gravity-defying routine act that will hold you in suspense as death-defying acts are on display before your very eyes. No CGI, no fly system, no safety net–just world-class acrobats that are (if I remember correctly) fourth generation circus performers.

You do not want to miss a single epic moment of Cirque Vertigo!

Visit the Busch Gardens website for more information on this and the other exciting acts coming to the Real Music Real Masters series!

“The Greatest Showman” movie musical review

Stunningly sensational! Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages witness the larger than life movie musical adaptation of the life of P.T. Barnum directed by Michael Gracey. Dazzling! 20th Century Fox’s The Greatest Showman is an incredible work of motion picture and performing arts magic. Never before has the magic of the American circus been captured so brilliantly. As the movie stares, “a man’s station is truly limited only by his imagination.” From the costumes to the music and choreography, this film is sure to inspire anyone who has a dream and wants to realize it. The music will have you singing along, clapping, and even tapping your toes because the emotions will get you right to the core. Ordinarily, a movie like this could generate an interest in budding performing artists and showbusiness enthusiasts to “run away and join the circus,” but the big top had its swan song earlier this year. One can only speculate that had this film been released last year that the circus that still bears his name Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey would still be touring today. Sadly, the circus had its final performance in May 2017. From the moment the movie opens, you will be completely immersed in the world of P.T. Barnum, a world unfamiliar with the concept of shows that were sheer spectacle, illusion, and simply designed to put smiles on faces. It’s entirely possible that this may prove to be the greatest films of 2017, and certainly one of the greatest movie musicals ever made.

Simply stated, The Greatest Showman is the film adaptation of the life of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and depicts how he was inspired to essentially create the very concept of showbusiness. From his successes to his failures, this movie showcases the very beginning of the American circus, a tradition that would last for nearly 150 years. Filled with incredible original music, this original movie musical displays how one man’s vision became a worldwide sensation.

My first observation of this film is just how polarizing it seems to be. On one hand, some critics and websites praise it for being an absolute delight while others are rating it rotten. Unapologetically, I feel strongly that this film musical is nearly flawless. As to how accurately it reflects the life of P.T. Barnum, I cannot speak to that because I have not spent hours researching his life; however, from what I do know about him, the movie seems to have captured the inspiration and vision accurately, as well as his faults and pitfalls. While standard holiday issue biopics are nothing new, what with The Darkest Hour also on the horizon this season, Gracey turns what could have been just another biographical film about an American icon into a larger than life dazzling display of precise choreography, effective montages, and just plain fun! Ringing Bros. may have closed the bigtop for the last time, but the soul of P.T. Barnum lives on in what Feld Entertainment (parent company to Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey) does. Without P.T. Barnum, we may not have the concept of showbusiness as we know it today. Despite staying away from the usual meaty themes found in Christmastime biopics, this film packs a powerful punch and supports the need for entertainment and the arts in our lives.

The high degree of passion Jackman displays for his character cannot be overstated. Though Gracey shows his directing prowess in this film, it is the labor of love of Jackman who has been trying to get this movie musical made for the better part of a decade. While the cliche underdog story may not be anything new, the method through which the story is told is a must-see spectacle. What works best in the movie are the extravagant and intricately choreographed musical numbers. The infectious and inspirational songs of The Greatest Showman were written by La La Land Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul while the brilliant choreography was staged by Ashley Wallen. Each and every musical number is powerful and truly adds to the fantastic experience of this film. Moreover, this movie musical typifies the height of the visual and performing arts in terms of the ability to create an imaginative atmosphere that generates sheer delight in the minds and eyes of the audience.

In many ways, this movie is an extension of the circus that many of us grew up watching as kids and even adults. The circus was never about deep, complex stories; it was about entertaining audiences of all ages and bringing smiles to faces. And this film will certainly bring joy into your life this holiday season! Such a perfect movie for the week leading into Christmas because it is fun for the whole family.

Full Review of Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa

“Enjoy it while YOU last!” Howl-O-Scream (HOS) opened at Busch Gardens Tampa this past weekend! With two new houses, new scare zones, and the Fiends show’s new venue, it’s definitely an exciting event to attend this Halloween season, and one you don’t want to miss. More apparent than in years’ past, HOS is definitely growing in production value as it continues to draw upon the same visitors and locals in central Florida as HHN does. I’m often asked which event is better. And there is no one answer or even a simple answer, at that, with which to respond. The truth is, both events are equally enjoyable; but, it’s important to note that they are really two different experiences. What I appreciate year after year at HOS is the scare-factor. I’m consistently more scared at HOS than at HHN. Since Busch Gardens knows that they cannot compete with Universal on familiar TV and movie IPs that Universal can license, they choose to focus on the element of the jump scare–and it’s successful. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself jumping more at HOS than you will at HHN. On the topic of IPs and by extension, production value, HOS has delivered some excellent houses that are on the verge of being on par with the HHN original IPs. Once Busch Gardens is able to license a familiar horror/suspense/thriller television show or motion picture, it will be quite the rival for HHN. Another area that HOS has capitalized on moreso than HHN is the availability of full bars. HHN does not offer full bars at the event (instead they have specialty drinks and beer). HOS offers several full liquor bars during the event, so you can get basic cocktails and such to enjoy while you scream your lungs off. With the addition of Reoccurring Nightmare tickets, HOS now offers the equivalent to the Rush of and Frequent Fear passes at HHN.

Like with HHN, there is no better night to experience HOS than opening night! The scare-actors are at full energy, the houses are at full nightmare status, and you get to experience the horrors with others who comprise the fan base of theme park Halloween events. Since Busch Gardens does not replace all the houses each year, I usually like to start with the new ones. This year, Busch Gardens Howl-O-Sceam debuted Demented Dimensions and Undead Arena LIVE. Both are excellent! The first house my friends and I visited was Demented Dimensions. Since Demented Dimensions is located in the Pantopia area of the park, we had to brave the streets of a deadly old folks home and a sinister circus. We got the biggest kick out of seeing actual senior members of our community put on bloody garbs and scary masks and haunt our steps through their scare zone. Good for them! This is a sign that BG HOS seeks to involve anyone who wants to spend the evening scaring park guests. Following a daring escape from the dentureless jaws of the hoard of old folks, we proceeded to brave the insidiously fun Carnie Camp. Quite the freak show, this circus will have you narrowly escaping the sinister carnies as you make your way through the three rings. Lastly, we had to pass through Wasteland (a scare zone reprise from last year) that looks like something out of a nightmarish Mad Max world). Following our emergence from Wasteland, we crossed over into another dimension–a demented dimension. Demented Dimensions, taking the place of Zombie Mortuary, is filled with a sensory overload of twists, turns, and physics-defying spectacles as you walk though this homage to that which only exists in your nightmares. Having arrived before the majority of the crowd, my friends and I had the house to ourselves. The best part about that is being the target of every scare-actor in the house. The theme of the house was quite fluid and continually immersed me within the multi-dimensional experience.

From Demented Dimensions to the treacherous high seas, the next house on our agenda was Black Spot, the pirate themed house from last year. Largely unchanged, this house is still a top notch one and has a near-Universal quality about it. Feels like what you would experience if Magic Kingdom’s Pirates of the Caribbean ever became haunted. Such an enjoyable thrill! I enjoyed it as much this year as I did last year. Like with Demented Dimensions, we had this one to ourselves too, so the scare-actors were out in full force to frighten us as we navigated the dark seas. After making it safely back to shore, we decided to take in the first showing of Fiends now located in the Stanleyville Theatre in the round stage. Even before the show started, I was nearly convinced that this experience was going to be even better than last year because of having a more traditional house layout as opposed to the dining hall feel of Dragon Fire Grill. Prior to the show and between the trivia on screen, the audience is reminded that if you are easily offended by anything that you may want to sit out of Fiends. And that is quite valid. I’ve often thought that Fiends would benefit from taking the adult humor up a notch and taking that envelope and pushing it even further. That is exactly what you get with this year’s show. Having been a part of HOS for all 19 years, each year is a riff on pup culture much in the same vein as the Bill and Ted show at HHN. Fiends returns from the dead funnier than ever! With excellent writing, a hilarious cast, and strategic riffs on pop culture, you have got to make time to see this show when you go to HOS.

After laughing to death at Fiends, we had to face the haunted circus once again. On our way to Death Water Bayou we spotted a motel off the main drag on a side street. Looked quite lonely, sitting on the side of the road with its exterior that seemed frozen in the 1950s. The Motel Shellburn is home to Motel Hell, a house that debuted last year at HOS, and still my favorite house this year. What sets this house apart from the rest of the lineup is the attention to detail and storytelling. From the entrance to the exit, this house IS definitely of an HHN quality. Unless I am mistaken, the exit for this year is different from last year. When you exit the motel, you’ll find yourself in a memorial garden of sorts. And watch out, because you’ll encounter terrifying scare-actors in the cemetery too. Located not far from Motel Hell is the merky depths of Death Water Bayou. If you read my review of this year’s HHN, you’ll remember that I commented on how Universal essentially copied this house for their Dead Waters. Getting to compare the houses back to back, I am convinced that the HOS version of this concept is definitely scarier and just more enjoyable. However, Dead Waters is a little longer than Death Water Bayou. Like with some of the other houses, this one stands out to me because of, like with Motel Hell, the theming outside of the house. I like how it looks like we are walking though a bayou and into a shanty in the back waters of Louisiana. The story of the house begins to immerse you even before entering in through the shadowy front door.

One great aspect to Busch Gardens’ Halloween event is coasters in the dark! All the coasters are open this year at HOS–even newly refurbished Kumba. While a lot of the park guests are there for just the haunted houses, that leaves many of the queues sparsely populated, which means walking right onto the coasters! After leaving Louisiana, we flew to Egypt for Cobra’s Curse and my personal favorite Montu! Nothing beats riding a coast at night! At HHN, for traditional roller coasters, other then Revenge of the Mummy, you have to go from Universal Studios Florida over to Islands of Adventure. Fortunately, Busch Gardens has your coaster need taken care of with all six thrill rides open! That includes Montu, Cobra’s Curse, Kumba, Shiekra, Cheetah Hunt, and Falcon’s Fury. If you arrive early enough to HOS, you will definitely have time for the houses AND the rides! We certainly did. Well, we went to all the houses except Zombie Containment Unit. Wasn’t a big fan of it last year nor the year before, so didn’t want to wait for it this year. The Playground scare zone returns for another disturbingly frightening year, and you’ll have to pass through it’s haunts when you walk from the Moroccan area back towards Pantopia.

From coasters alive with excitement, to one that is a ghost of its former self, we returned to unearth something evil. Unearthed is now in its third year but still just as thrilling as it was when it debuted in 2015. The animatronic tree you pass before entering into the excavation chambers is still so incredibly impressive! Unearthed is another house that encroaches upon HHN quality. Although the house is not new this year, I am pretty sure that there were some extra scares in it this year as opposed to years past. The last house on our agenda was another new one. Just like with the Ringling Bros. circus, Circus of Superstition also closed after last year. But, Gwazi field is still bustling with live undead entertainment at Undead Arena LIVE. In the vein of the circus, this house takes a classic approach to haunts in that it really does feel like a traditional fun house, completely with dead ends, mirrors, and getting split up from your group. If you are more than a group of two, then the carnie barker will split you up into two separate groups as you make your way through the maze. There are scares round every corner as you desperately attempt to find your way out of the mind bending labyrinth of undead terrors.

Well, there you have it! A comprehensive review of Howl-O-Scream 2017. I hope you decide to face your fears at Busch Gardens’ annual event. HOS is going on now through October 29th (last Sunday of October). Tickets are reasonably priced but vary depending on when you choose to go. Consider upgrading to the Reoccurring Nightmare ticket to enjoy all nights of the event.