In 10 Words or Less
A look behind the scenes of the world-famous circus
I've never seen a Cirque Du Soleil performance, no matter how often my wife talks about it or how often they are shown on Bravo's high-definition channel. I just never got into the idea of the artistic acrobatic show, in much the same way as I've never been able to get into gymnastics in the Olympics. I think the last time I watched acrobats willingly was on "The Circus of the Stars." Sure, I can appreciate the beauty, but actually enjoy watching it...no. So in sitting down with 13 episodes of "Fire Within," I though I would have to overcome quite a bit of bias in order to review it with an open mind.
But as I learned, watching this documentary series doesn't require a real love of the circus, acrobats or anything else related to Cirque Du Soleil. This show is more about the people than what they do. These subjects could be working in a factory or playing on a baseball team. They just happen to be in a circus. Like anyone else, their lives are filled with hard work, love, struggles, disappointment and happiness. Through this series, as the new Cirque show, Varekai, comes together, a clearer picture of the people behind it is painted. Surprisingly, despite being produced with Cirque Du Soleil's cooperation, this is no fluff piece. Life in the Cirque is not all peaches and cream.
One could be tempted to call this series a reality show, mainly because it is truly, completely real. There's also the chance of being "eliminated," since these performers are all vying to be in the final show, but not all of them will make it. And yes, much of the drama, emotion and tension is amped up in the editing. But those elements are the only aspects "Fire Within" shares with the "Survivor" crowd. There's no scripting or "acting" on the part of the characters, and no prodding by the producers in order to make something happen. If only all reality shows were this real.
Eight members of the cast are focused on, in order to tell their stories in depth. The stars of the series are high-flying Australian acrobats Andrew and Kevin, because they become the highlight of the stage show, but the drama behind the scenes, as they negotiate their contract and struggle with changes made to their act, is even more enthralling than their awesome straps act. While Andrew and Kevin are the show's face (or faces), Gareth, a British gymnast, is the show's heart. His mother's battle with cancer affects his entire life, including his work at the Cirque, resulting in a human drama that takes the audience through a complete range of emotions. His story connects the average person with this very unique world more than any other.
Director Lewis Cohen put together one of the most polished documentary series I've ever seen, definitely earning the Emmy the show won in 2003 for Outstanding Nonfiction Program (Alternative). The style the series has, including music video-style editing, helps make the show flow, and as a result, the episodes fly by, even faster than their 22-minute length. There are some "glitches" when it comes to compiling the episodes, as each ends with a "Next Time" preview and begins with a reminder of what happened before. As a result, there's a lot of repetition at the beginning of the episodes, but it's just a small concern. "Fire Within" is an addictive and fascinating passport into an interesting new world.
These DVDs feature one of the most impressive menu systems I've seen for a television series. It's not that it's very complex, but it's smooth as silk, with seamless and well-designed transitions. That the audio is in 5.1 Surround on the menus just makes it better. In addition to an audio menu that offers a choice between 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks and subtitles options including English, Spanish, French and Portugese, an episode selection menu gives not just access to the episodes on each disc, but animated previews of the rest of the set. Though it serves no real practical use (you can't access those other episodes without switching discs), it's an interesting way to tie the whole set together. Each episode can be selected separately, or a "play all" option can be used. The 13 episodes of "Fire Within" are spread over three discs, with five on each of the first two platters, and three (plus bonus features) on the third. The DVDs are packaged in clear ThinPaks, which come in a cardboard slipcase. The cover for each ThinPak is printed on both sides, with episode descriptions on the outside and colorful patterns on the inside.
Beautifully produced, the video is in high-quality widescreen, a necessity due to the subject matter. The colorful costumes and dark performance venues demand a great deal of the video, and the discs deliver, thanks to encoding that averages around 7Mbps. The visual style of the production ranges from crystal clear video to gritty processed footage, but the DVDs make it look good the entire time. The audio is best in 5.1 Surround, naturally, but not as active as it could have been, considering the material available. Either way, the sound is good, with an excellent mix of music and dialogue. I never caught the show on Bravo, but knowing the channel, I imagine it was broadcast in full-screen and stereo. This presentation is likely the best it's ever been.
A reality show staple, the reunion special, is included on the third disc. Meeting in Montreal, on the grounds where the big-top tent stood, the main characters and the director reminisce, look back at the show and talk about what they are doing now. It's not quite as interesting as the main show, but for those looking for a coda to the series, this provides a touch of closure. Also included are 29 minutes of interviews with the eight stars and the director. Questions are asked in the form of subtitles on black screens, followed by the answer on video. These are a bit more informative than the reunion special, as the group answers point-blank questions. Each interview, seven in all (there are three group chats), can be selected from a Q&A menu. Though there is no "Play All" option, when you select a performer's section, the interviews that follow it on the menu will play after.
On the special features menu, besides the DVD credits, there are also several Cirque Du Soleil promos, including full-frame trailers for the Varekai stage show and the company's online fan club, and widescreen previews of the Cirque's DVD collection and an upcoming DVD series titled "Solstrom."
The Bottom Line
For fans of the Cirque, circus, gymnasts or simply art will love this set. It's a beautiful look at truly entertaining performers. Anyone who enjoys reality shows should really enjoy this series. The drama and pathos is on a level with the best of the genre. And if you just like to watch documentary films and TV, this is an excellent example of what the camera can capture when unfettered. I'm not certain it has much in the way of replay value, but the content is fascinating.