The Show of Shows (3 stars)

The Show of Shows

Enjoyable if fairly repetitive documentary focusing on old-school entertainment

The Show of Shows is a film to warm the heart of every Barnum & Bailey, Billy Smart and Bertram Mills on the planet. Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson’s follow-up to his much admired Of Horses and Men is a documentary collage celebrating old-school entertainment, from three-ring circuses to music hall burlesque, rodeo rides and death-defying public stunts.

Random archive footage in black-and-white and colour unfolds to a score by Georg Hólm and Orri Páll Dýrason of Sigur Rós, working in collaboration with pioneering composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Georg's brother Kjartan Dagur Hólm. Initially, the emphasis is on the circus as we are invited behind the scenes as the big top is raised, star attractions rehearse and the eager crowds surge in. Erlingsson clearly has an affection for circus acts that range from acrobats and strong men to trapeze artistes, human cannonballs and baggy-panted clowns. There are ice-cold knife throwers, sword swallowers and shimmying dancers galore.

Erlingsson showcases all kinds of animals acts from performing polar bears to monkeys riding on the backs of ponies and trainers placing their heads in the jaws of a lion. Health and safety doesn’t appear to have been much of a concern. There is a genuine excitement in witnessing some of the fearless high-wire acts and stomach-turning shock in glimpsing the distress of child boxers and the mistreatment of minors.

There is no commentary or context just thematically arranged sequences of images and music designed to build a mood of bittersweet nostalgia for a time of public entertainment that often feels as distant as the age of horseless carriages and top hats. Hypnotic but inevitably repetitive, The Show of Shows feels more like something you might dip into in a gallery context rather than consume in a single sitting but, at its best, offers an intriguing window into a lost world.

Selected release from Fri 4 Dec.

The Show of Shows

  • 3 stars
  • 2015
  • Iceland, UK
  • 1h 16min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson

Documentary collage celebrating old-school entertainment, from three-ring circuses to burlesque, rodeo riders and public stunts. The high-wire acts are genuinely exciting and there's some stomach-turning footage of child boxers in distress. With no commentary or context, it's a bit repetitive but at best it's an…