So I was sitting in the cinema with my daughters wading through the ponderous volley of trailers and nauseating Coke ads that we had to submit to in order to watch Thor: Ragnarok. Suddenly, in hypersaturated color, there was Hugh Jackman in a circus ring. A PT Barnum musical? Like, another one? Was the Reboot Machine fired up to take another stab at that musical? I remembered that musical. Jim Dale. Glenn Close. 1979? 1980? We’d had it on vinyl when I was a kid. I listened to it all the time. It combined conventions of musical theater with the spectacle of the circus and considered, if not that searingly, the value of “humbug” in the context of a man whose first “act” was a slave he purchased and marketed as the oldest woman in the world and the former wet-nurse of George Washington.
But no, this had totally different music, and Hugh Jackman clearly being positioned as Mister Awesomesauce, giving the Freaks a Freakflag behind which to rally with pride and celebrate the glorious diversity of the world’s creatures. There was nothing about buying people.
“This seems like it’ll probably be questionable,” I said to Grace, “but I’d watch Hugh Jackman pay his bills online for two hours.”
“He probably has an admin,” Grace whispered back.
“Shh!” Grace’s sister Camille was getting impatient, so I shhhh’d.
A couple weeks later I was offered a peek at The Greatest Showman’s polar opposite—a very human, no smoke, no mirrors documentary premiering on SundanceTV, about Lorenzo Pisoni, who grew up in the Pickle Family Circus. The Pickles were not really part of my childhood, which I expect makes me a minority in Bay Area-raised people of my generation, but I certainly knew they’d been a game-changing force in how “circus” was conceptualized. PT Barnum displayed “curiosities,” exotic animals and exotic human beings—Larry Pisoni used clowning to ponder gender politics and class issues—and the nature of family. Both ringmasters came from nothing, propelled themselves into the spotlight through pure tenacity and voltage, and had probably spent their lives hungering at some level for the approval of absent parents. Beyond that, they were pretty damn different.
Circus Kid is glorious and a heartbreaker, a documentary in which a young man on the brink of becoming a parent confronts his own parents about a childhood that couldn’t have been much more surreal or flat-out weird. Lorenzo Pisoni’s clowning career began when he was two-years-old. His family was a literal and figurative circus. He grew up in the ring, with a ringmaster dad who drilled him in juggling and acrobatics, pratfalls and tapdancing, with relentless, impassioned drive.
I’m sure most of us grow up afraid of disappointing our parents, but man.
When I chatted with Daniel Radcliffe, one of the executive producers of the documentary, I asked what led him to become involved with Circus Kid.
“Lorenzo did,” he said. “We met in 2007 when we were doing Equus. Lorenzo had this show, about growing up in the circus, about his dad.” (The documentary contains some remarkable footage of Pisoni’s show Humor Abuse, where he details what it was like to have a perfectionist clown for a father.)
Fascinated by Pisoni’s show, Radcliffe says the documentary concept was something he very much wanted to support. “[There was] to some extent financial support, but what my [main] role really was more of a sounding board, moral support, that sort of thing.”
“The Pickles were hometown stuff for me,” I mentioned, “but I think they’re probably underrated or not well enough understood in terms of how they changed the circus arts.”
“Yeah, it was a big thing for them not to use animals, for example,” Radcliffe agreed. “That’s a huge departure. I know many zoos have serious and important conservation missions and everything, but at this point it’s really hard for me to enjoy them.”
“The non-use of animals by the Pickles was interesting for lots of reasons,” I added, “but it eliminated the exoticizing distraction and left the humans to be the animals on display. Which produced a really keen focus on the clowning and gave it a much deeper metaphorical meaning.”
“Absolutely,” Radcliffe said. “Clowns aren’t having the best time of it right now, and I think it’s important to emphasize that what they do is really kind of amazing. What Lorenzo did with this film was incredibly brave. Don’t we all want to, not exactly confront necessarily, but to get answers from our parents about why things were the way they were. And I don’t mean brave because you’re going to get some devastating answer. Quite the opposite. Laying yourself bare to the fact that you can’t ever get the closure you think you want. It just won’t happen.”
“Even if your parents don’t spend their lives in clown makeup.”
“You have to be willing to be very vulnerable to do comedy, or clowning,” Radcliffe noted. “That’s what’s beautiful about it, and something I think Lorenzo is amazing with.”
Watching Circus Kid is a good idea for anyone who has a family or is a human being. Watching it in tandem with the sleek and astoundingly revisionist musical about PT Barnum is an exercise in provocative counterpoint. There are the questions about the family you’re born into and the family you choose. About the paradoxes of “show business.” About the difficult highwire act where exposure meets exploitation. About running away to join the circus, and running away from the circus. About curiosity and “curiosities.” Both films delve into the past, albeit in totally different ways and for totally different reasons. Both seek a redemptive message that both is and isn’t really there. One is a sometimes-egregious fiction with a foundation in some facts. One is an autobiography wrought from a life of pretending to be someone else.
Once you’ve seen it, go see Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman and prepare to have your mind blown at how affecting sheer spectacle can be … and how it’s got bupkiss on a sincere, utterly unspectacular, human-to-human experiment in self-discovery.
Circus Kid is available on Sundance Now.
Amy Glynn writes for Paste. Her circus spirit animal is “aerialist.”