(2016) Documentary (Points West) Larry Pisoni, Bill Irwin, Peggy Snider, Lorenzo Pisoni, Harvey Robb, Geoff Hoyle, Terry Lorant, Paul Binder, Hovey Burgess, Gypsy Snider, Jess Pisoni. Directed by Lorenzo Pisoni
Being in a circus, to a kid, would seem to be the most wonderful thing ever. Traveling from city to city, performing in front of adoring crowds and all those wonderful animals! Oh my, what kid of my generation would not want to join the circus?
Well, Lorenzo Pisoni did just that but not the way you’d think. His father Larry and his mother Peggy Snider were co-founders of the Pickle Family Circus in 1974 in San Francisco. The Pickles were at the forefront of the New American Circus movement, one which eschewed animal acts and while they did use traditional circus performers like clowns, jugglers, high wire acts, tumblers and did I mention clowns? Larry was the head clown and his act made the world take notice.
As a 2-year-old boy Lorenzo wandered out onto the center of the ring and performed his own clown act. Soon he was partnering with his dad who became not just his parent but his coach, mentor and of course onstage partner. Although Lorenzo got his share of home schooling, he had little contact with other kids his age. He was too busy performing and practicing when he wasn’t performing. It speaks volumes that Lorenzo signed a contract as a performer as a seven-year-old, locking him into the life of the circus.
His father also developed a drinking problem, one that got him pushed out of the circus he founded. That forced a change in the life Lorenzo had already known. While Peggy was now staying in San Francisco looking after the financial affairs of the circus, Lorenzo as an 11-year-old boy was traveling with the show without either one of his parents now that his father was out of the picture, although he did have a legal guardian with him.
Years later, Lorenzo would create a one-man show detailing his childhood in an off-Broadway production called Humor Abuse – snippets of it are shown paralleling events being discussed in the film which Lorenzo directs. At first it’s essentially a story of the Pickle Family Circus but eventually it becomes the story of a boy’s relationship with his dad, how it became toxic and how the two reconciled. The latter part is the more interesting element of the two, although the circus history and backstage peeks are also fascinating in their own right.
Bill Irwin was probably the most famous graduate of the Pickle Family Circus, with Geoff Hoyle a close second. Both appear here to talk about their time as part of the Pickles and Irwin gets fairly emotional about it. For those wondering, the group has changed quite a bit over the years – they have incorporated Chinese acrobatics into the show and still do weekend shows in the San Francisco Bay Area three months a year.
Being a West Coast boy, I’ve seen the Pickle Family Circus on more than one occasion in their heyday. Like Cirque du Soleil which was inspired by their example, they have only a single ring rather than three. The clowns which I remember vividly were perhaps the most important element of the circus; the feats of agility were certainly amazing but I remember the clowns. It was a more innocent age.
The movie gives some insight not only into the dynamic between Larry and Lorenzo but also into the Circus itself, but it feels like almost two movies. Lorenzo, now a family man himself, doesn’t really bring the two aspects of his film together as smoothly as it might have been. Still, if you ever dreamed of running away to the Circus, this might be the film for you although I have to admit that running away to the Circus generally didn’t mean having my parents along when I was daydreaming about it as a young boy.
REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at the lives of traveling performers and of the history of the Pickle Family Circus.
REASONS TO STAY: The two elements of the movie – the history of the Pickles and the father and son dynamic between Lorenzo and Larry don’t mesh as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing you wouldn’t want your kids to see – especially if they’re threatening to run away with the circus.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lorenzo’s sister Gypsy created all the circus sequences in the recent Tony-award winning revival of Pippin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Fang
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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