Sony // 2002 // 286 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // January 18th, 2005
I came here to be useful, but in the end...I think it didn't matter. In fact,
I don't think anyone matters to them. What matters is the show. No matter what
you say, it's not normal.
- Adrian, a Romanian singer
In 2003, Bravo aired a series (created by a Canadian documentary production team) called Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within. The filmmakers followed several performers as they auditioned for, developed, rehearsed and premiered Cirque Du Soleil's latest touring show, Varekai (currently still on tour in the US in 2005). This set contains the entire series, and some bonus features that will have Cirque fans bouncing for joy.
It looks like your typical reality television show, and it often plays out exactly like one. Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within has all the familiar trappings: real live people taped at work and at home, people getting fired, people getting angry, and people crying. Most of all, it has people triumphantly creating a really incredible spectacle that will make Cirque Du Soleil a lot of money! There are thirteen twenty-minute episodes, and a bonus reunion special that comes with a cast and crew interview session.
She's beautiful -- a red-headed Russian dancer who has performed with many troupes both in her home country and here in the United States. We are sitting backstage outside of a huge yellow and blue rubber tent during a Varekai performance sharing war stories of life on the road and the perils of being a dancer. I tell her I am reviewing Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within and she gives me a long meaningful look and through a thick Russian accent says,
"You know Fire Within is all bullshit. It makes Cirque du Soleil look good and nice. These performers are the best in the world, and they are bullied into taking substandard contracts that pay them little just to have Cirque on their resumes. Look around and see who is left in the show from that little television series two years ago. Then come back and tell me what you think."
She's right, in a way. Stella, a wonderful gymnast turned trapeze artist, has rejoined the cast of Varekai for two cities in Texas recently after a failed attempt at making it big as an actress in Hollywood. Kevin and Andrew, twins who perform an incredible strap act, are still with the show. And that's about it from the series, which looked at the lives of at least a dozen performers. My Russian dancer is right -- people do not stay with Cirque too long. I'm currently on the tour managing all the ushers and event staff during the Houston stop of Varekai, and can't wait to see that big top come down and leave me behind. You have to be crazy to want to run off with the circus.
The cast is what makes Fire Within so entertaining. You have to be slightly insane to dangle from the ceiling on a silk scarf, or climb onto a metal apparatus with three other girls and start doing flips. All this without a net or safety harness! They are from all corners of the globe, and they all dream of one thing -- being a circus star. It's right up there with the cockamamie scheme of wanting to be a rock legend or a siren of the silver screen! Few people make it, and few people even attempt it. The series is a great way to see how Cirque scours the globe for its talent, and then puts them through a year of hellish training and endless rehearsals to get the show they want to put out there. They are demanding, and often dismiss a potential performer without even a trademark Donald Trump hand gesture and a "You're fired!" Instead, the performers mysteriously end up in a taxi heading towards an airport that will usher them back to their desperate normal lives in Eastern Europe, South America, or Asia. You watch them struggle to keep the dream alive and not end up with a one way ticket home. Wisely, Fire Within focuses on a colorful small cross-section of the large cast: Ashley, Gareth, Raquel, Stella, Olga, Kevin, Andrew and Oleg get the most coverage. You do get a glimpse of everyone, but these performers are dealt with in depth. They all have charismatic qualities that will hook you into the series.
If you're a fan of Cirque du Soleil, this set is a loving look at their creative process. You get to see a show go from basic conception to full realization. Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within is presented in a very nice widescreen aspect ratio, and gets a rich full five channel surround mix. The footage quality varies because of the documentary technique and multiple cameras and sources. The menus are handsomely produced, and the entire set is a first class affair from packaging to the promos. It is a bit lacking in the extras department -- no commentaries or deleted scenes. What you do get is a rather tepid reunion special that doesn't tell you much about what the circus people are doing now (probably because they don't want you to know the grim reality of ex-acrobats waiting tables). Much more insightful are the question and answer sessions with the individuals involved in the show, done at the same time as the reunion. That's where you get the meat of what's happening, and the dish on what these people aspire to once Cirque leaves their lives.
If you're a casual fan or care little for Cirque du Soleil (and if so -- why are you reading this?) this may not be an enticing investment. The unconverted will find little to make them change their minds. It looks like a reality show, but it lacks much of the hyped-up drama of the ones currently airing. Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within did win an Emmy in 2003 in a documentary category, but it's hardly riveting or edge-of-your-seat entertainment. This is all real life stuff, not scripted, and not jazzed up -- other than, maybe, the cameo from Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil), who cries when she gets to meet Olga the contortionist. It's really thirteen episodes of people struggling to learn a gymnastics routine so they can wear freaked out make-up and act like a lizard. If you saw the whole series on Bravo then there is not much here new to see.
One problem with the whole series is that the makers decided they would stop taping if Cirque or the performers requested them to. Quite often they get to an interesting point and you see this request honored. You don't get to see people fight over contracts, don't get to hear Cirque founder and CEO Guy Liberte's thoughts on a hellacious dress rehearsal, and don't get to see Stella fight with her boyfriend. It feels like they skip all the juicy salacious parts that would make the show gritty and disturbing. It's all too nice and respectful. I have insider knowledge of Varekai, and have seen two French Canadian women get into a fistfight, a really ugly car crash just outside the gates, tendons shredded in a performance, and bloody messes from a misfiring Russian swing in the short time I have been with the show (about two weeks as of this writing). Now there's a damn reality show for you. These guys neutered a lot of the disputes and drama because Cirque had to approve the product. The gloves were on a little too securely.
Varekai is an amazing show, and Cirque Du Soleil: Fire Within is a neat look at some insanely talented people who make it possible. Even if the series is watered down, it's still a nice glimpse inside the Grand Chapiteau (French for Big Top). For Cirque fans it should be a no-brainer. Everyone else will find it an amusing rental.
The cast and crew of Varekai are free to go on entertaining thousands every night as they trek across North America. If you get a chance, see them, and maybe I'll be out back bitching with the Russian dancers. Cirque is guilty of watering down Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within a little too much, but it's tasteful and well done (like their shows!). Entertaining? Yes. In-depth? To a degree. Don't expect the ugly truth; just the very pretty side of reality.
Review content copyright © 2005 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 286 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Fire Within Reunion Special
* Q&A with Cast and Director Lewis Cohen
* Cirque Du Soleil Promos
* Cirque Du Soleil
* Production Company Site
* A Rant on "I hate Cirque du Soleil"