The Show of Shows: Tribeca Film Festival Review

The Show of Shows: 100 Years of of Vaudeville, Circuses and Carnivals utilizes archival footage to deliver the wonders of the big top.

The Show of Shows bears some similarity in terms of composition to a 2011 Tribeca Film Festival selection that I saw, The Miners’ Hymns. Both set black and white footage from a UK archive against an original score from an Icelandic composer (or in this case composers) to present a documentary feature. Each has a score essential to the narrative arc of the film yet stands alone — particularly the final cut in Miners, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s epic “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World”. But, while The Miners’ Hymns carried political weight, The Show of Shows is lighter, more entertaining fare.

The score for The Show of Shows was composed by Georg Holm and Orri Pall Dyrason (both of Sigur Rós) with Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson and Kjartan Dagur Holm. It was released as an album entitled Circe. Their music fits the film like a tailored suit, so well that it would be impossible to believe the musicians and the director were not coordinating regularly to hew the audio to the visuals as closely as possible. The 77-minute run time for the film even clocks in just shy of the length of an audio CD.

As presented, The Show of Shows has distinct sections that encompass all the elements of a circus, beginning with the preparation, including setting up the tents and the arrival of the audience, before it moves on to performers like dancing ladies and daredevil acts. Then it continues to get wilder with animals, like lions, tigers and elephants, before returning to humans — clowns and men being shot out of cannons. Each is enhanced by a unique theme, from the upbeat “Lila” as the ladies danced to the more dramatic “Wirewalker”.

But, while I’m not sure how much deeper director Benedikt Erlingsson wants an audience to delve into his composition, I felt two moments carried more weight than entertainment value. During a section of the film showing women in a beauty pageant, I questioned why people objectifying women in swimwear was an attraction at an event where true talents were on display. Then, when the film transitioned away from monkeys, footage of a possibly “disobedient” primate — riding a tricycle and seemingly escaping a circus — in turned to the civilized disobedience and slapstick from clowns. At least the clowns had chosen to perform their acts.

Even if I was looking too closely into the film, it didn’t stop me from finding pleasure in The Show of Shows. Other critics felt similarly — genuine laughter resounded in the screening room. Erlingsson’s adaptation of big top excitement onto the silver screen is an enjoyable and wondrous effort.

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