The key to a good documentary is to have a compelling subject. It also helps to have great cinematography, endless access to your talent, and major, unexpected plot twists that up the drama in ways you never could have predicted. But how do you go about making a good, entertaining, and perhaps even poignant documentary when you don’t have any of that? First time filmmaker Zachary Capp doesn’t exactly set out to answer any of these questions in The Ringmaster, but by the end of the film – or, really, just a few minutes in – he takes a solid stab at trying. The Ringmaster is a film that begins with a very simple idea that it completely fails to deliver on, forcing the crew to follow a series of semi-logical twists and turns as they try to keep the project alive and figure out exactly what movie they’re even making. The result is an oddly endearing hodgepodge of comedy, human interest story, and behind-the-scenes featurette that doesn’t work quite as well as it would like to, but somehow manages to work far better than it has any right to. And it all starts from the humblest of beginnings: a plate of onion rings.
The Ringmaster primarily focuses on two drastically different men brought together by food and fate. The first is Larry Lang, a man from southern Minnesota who reputedly makes the best onion rings in the area, and by some accounts, perhaps even the best onion rings in the country. While the rings may be extraordinary, Larry is anything but. A modest, soft-spoken cook, he grew up working in local hotspot Michael’s Steakhouse, which was run by Larry’s father. When the original location burned down, Larry made a short-lived attempt at running his own business by re-opening the restaurant in a new location. When the new Michael’s quickly closed, Larry continued working as a cook in an endless series of kitchens with only one constant: his onion rings. Wherever Larry went, people would follow him to get those little circles of deep-fried heaven, sometimes even driving hundreds of miles for the experience.
The second subject ends up being the filmmaker himself. Zachary Capp, a rich kid who fell in love with filmmaking while in rehab for a gambling addiction, is a stark contrast to Larry. Zachary is loud, gregarious, and always scheming up new ways to make and lose money. Zachary first learned about Larry from his mother Lexy, who grew up in the same county in Minnesota and insists on getting the fabled onion rings every time they travel back home. Her obsession sparks the idea for Zachary’s first documentary film project, which in turn inspires a massive investment in his own production company. Armed with his freshly printed Capp Bros hats, thousands of dollars in brand new camera equipment, and an impulsively defined vision, Zachary sets out to tell the origin story of the onion ring.
Originally conceived as the pilot for a TV series called American Food Legends, the project immediately falls apart after their very first interview subject reveals that no one knows how, when, or where onion rings first appeared. Undeterred, Zachary decides to abandon his original plan and instead make a film that focuses on Larry. Unfortunately, this tactic also unravels when Larry, a reluctantly willing participant, proves to be a less than enthralling on camera personality who barely speaks and often trails off in the middle of his own sentences. In a typical exchange, Zachary asks Larry about his favorite school memories, prompting Larry to look quietly off camera for an uncomfortably long time before finally coming out with, “Oh, just the overall…”
In an attempt to salvage the project yet again, Zachary makes another shift and decides to stage an event celebrating Larry and his contributions to his hometown, which is where the film really starts to go off the rails. Zachary becomes obsessed with find a big enough ending for the film to be worthy of Larry’s story, slowly transforming himself from an objective, fly-on-the-wall observer to Larry’s de facto manager. Zachary arranges all manner of business opportunities for Larry, from public appearances to lucrative branding deals, and even a run-in with the rock band Kiss. These sorts of opportunities might thrill most people, but end up overwhelming Larry, who is content with his simple life, has never heard of Gene Simmons, and starts going AWOL from his public appearances.
Ultimately, as Larry becomes more and more disinterested in the process, the crew convinces Zachary to turn the camera on himself and make the film about making the film, which gives as much insight into how to make a documentary as how not to make one. By a lot of measures, the final product is not a very good film, in part because Zachary is not a very good filmmaker. This is not merely a criticism, but a fact that Zachary and his crew readily and repeatedly admit throughout the film. Zachary cops to rookie mistakes like not bringing his camera along for what ended up being a crucial yet unfilmed scene. Producer and Director of Photography Pete Berg says multiple times that he never thought this idea was strong enough to sustain an entire feature in the first place. Top it all off with some cheesy graphics, a bunch of bad camera work, and interviews that need to be epileptically edited together to form a single coherent soundbite and you get the perfect recipe for deep-fried disaster.
Yet somehow, despite it all, the final film is actually very engaging and entertaining. It has enough genuinely funny and heartbreaking moments to make up for most of the technical shortcomings. When the lens turns on Zachary, he discusses his thought process with honesty and self-awareness, reflecting on the connection between his Larry obsession and his latent gambling problem. Even Larry, despite his reticence, brings enough polite midwestern charisma to keep you more invested in his story than he is. The disparate elements may never add up to a perfect movie, but they do manage to keep you invested in the story, even when you’re unsure what the main story actually is.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
While The Ringmaster is definitely rough around the edges, and not all of the fourth wall breaking commentary completely works, there’s a lot here to enjoy. While the film could easily be compared to classic documentaries like Catfish or Sherman’s March that start off following one idea and veer off in completely unexpected directions, a better comparison would be Lost in La Mancha, a behind the scenes doc about a crumbling film production that ends up being far more interesting than the original ever could have been. Like the filmmakers themselves, audiences will be left with feelings of disappointment, pride, and an insatiable craving for onion rings.