A surprise feature film is a bit of a contradiction in terms, but it does sometimes happen, with Beyoncé’s anthology film “Lemonade” constituting the richest and most fully realized example. Travis Scott‘s “Circus Maximus,” which showed in AMC Theaters as part of a special arrangement with the chain, isn’t in the same weight class. On the qualitative scale of movies that were created mainly to advertise an album of new songs, it’s probably closer to the Beatles’ slapped-together movie “Magical Mystery Tour,” which was broadcast in the United Kingdom on the day after Christmas, 1967; suffice to say that if you’ve never heard of it, there’s a reason. On the other hand, “Magical Mystery Tour” did give the world the title track and “I Am the Walrus,” and there’s a case to be made that the mere existence of an odd and basically uncategorizable film like this should be supported and encouraged just because it’s so different from what usually plays in chain theaters.
“Circus Maximus” is credited as having been written and directed by Travis Scott, but it’s an anthology comprised of work by a lot of other directors, including Harmony Korine, Nicolas Winding Refn, Gaspar Noe, and Kahlil Joseph, and you have to guess who directed what until the end credits. By the time you read this, the film will likely no longer be available in theaters, though it’s possible that it could reappear as a one-off curiosity or midnight movie.
The movie begins with a science-fiction-y scene of Scott grappling with a squid-like monster, then eases us into an epic journey montage, with Scott crossing various terrains as if he’s en route to drop a cursed ring into Mt. Doom. His ultimate destination, however, turns out to be the home of a guru-like figure played by producer Rick Rubin. The film returns to their conversations, turning them into a framing device. The conversations border on incoherent—the discussions about connecting people’s energies and not allowing them to be broken sounds like something a musician would say on a press junket when he’s high and not mad at anybody, and in general, it’s all vague enough that nothing in it can be tied to anything specific in real life. These talks are shot with an oval-shaped matte around the image that alternately suggests that the speakers are being surveilled through binoculars or watched by a cyclops (sometimes the image “blinks”).
What follows is a series of music videos, essentially, some better than others, including one shot in Ghana with seemingly hundreds of extras; a sequence directed by Refn in which Scott careens through city streets in a taxi driven at high speed by a creepy crash test dummy, while calmly smoking weed; a dance floor fantasia co-produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo; and a segment where Scott takes part in a human pyramid in a packed stadium.
Scott must know he’s courting trouble with crowd imagery—ten fans were fatally crushed at one of his 2021 concerts at Houston’s Astroworld festival, though a Texas grand jury subsequently declined to indict Scott or anyone associated with the event. It’s also possible that the beast that embraces Scott in the opening is his guilt, fear of consequences, or something along those lines. But the movie is cryptic or coy about such things. While this is as it should be, in what is basically an experimental film, more clarity of purpose (as in “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles Brothers’ documentary of the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont) might’ve made the material land harder.
Surely not coincidentally, the music videos fall into two categories, crowd or no crowd. The bulk of the film is a concert done without fans, repeating a lot of the same tracks showcased in the music video portion of the film and unfolding entirely in the eponymous chariot racing stadium in Rome, which also happens to be the site of the single worst disaster in the history of spectator sports: over 1,000 people were killed when the venue’s upper tier collapsed. Scott performs mostly solo, although collaborators join him at various points. The collaborators approach from the outer edges of the stadium and are tracked to the center area, often without cuts.
Korine appears to be in charge of most of the “concert for nobody” sequences. Like the rest of the movie, this footage is shot on 35mm film, an increasingly rare format, and a lot of it was done from the top of a large crane, which allows for fast sweeping movements coded as “epic.” The filmmakers decided to let cables and lights and other production elements (including the rows of tents near the stadium) remain visible at all times, reminding us of the contrived, artificial nature of a film shoot, and even have the performers walk through them, around them, and under them, rather than frame them out. We even see a large drone fitted a spotlight that illuminates Scott from overhead no matter where he goes. Unfortunately, much of this footage is darkly lit, to the point where you can barely see the performers. There are also moments where it seems like the camera crew either missed whatever moment or composition they were supposed to capture or didn’t know what they were supposed to focus on (the drone-operated spotlight often misses the lead performer as well). And there’s not much memorable choreography to speak of; it is more like bouncing, and a few of the more striking bits of physicality (such as Scott climbing the huge wall of speakers behind him and perching atop it like Batman) are repeated, which lessens their impact. The scale of the project confirms that it wasn’t simply thrown together, but there are still times when it feels that way.
Scott is a powerful presence when he’s a distant or cutout figure walking through landscapes, and he is very effective in music videos where he’s silhouetted or wreathed in smoke and strobe lights and otherwise treated as one visual element among many. But he’s a distant and often cold presence otherwise, especially in conversation scenes with Rubin. He generally withholds when on camera and wears Cyclops-looking slit-style goggles throughout most of the concert. The goggles connect visually with the slit-scan “surveillance” imagery in the framing device with Rubin and the audio-animatronic robot performers that back him up in a couple of numbers. But they also rob Scott of the screen performer’s most effective connection tool with an audience, his eyes. These are interesting choices, but also ones that spell doom for a performer who doesn’t have what could be called, for lack of a better phrase, a film persona (as Elvis, Prince, and other music-and-movie stars did). The guest performers (notably James Blake) generally make a stronger impression even though their screen time is comparatively brief.
“Circus Maximus” is a curiosity and a career footnote more than a substantial freestanding film achievement, which is too bad. It’s more a notion for a work of art than a work of art, and you can’t expect people to pay $25 (the cost of a special engagement ticket opening weekend) for a notion.
In theaters now.