Circus of the Scars Review

Reviews Films


Hasn’t everyone dreamt of running away to the circus at one point in their lives? Well, if you’re headed to Circus of the Scars it might turn into a nightmare, but at least it’ll be fun. 

Circus of The Scars is a documentary following the unique phenomenon of 1990s grunge rock circus sideshow acts from the Pacific Northwest, chiefly the Jim Rose Circus. Primarily comprised of rough-cut archival footage, the director, Chicory Wees, details a sordid history of banning, fainting and inner turmoil as the macabre misfits toured the world non-stop at the height of their fame. This documentary, much like the circus itself, is not for the faint of heart. 

In the first half of the film, we get exposed to what a typical audience would have experienced at a night out at the circus. Audiences ranged from ‘normie’ rubberneckers looking for a cheap thrill, to authentic grunge groupies, and even the occasional celebrity like Kurt Cobain, who attended the opening night performance. No matter who was in attendance, they were all waiting keenly to see the likes of Jim Rose (the ‘ringmaster’), the Amazing Mr Lifto, Matt ‘The Tube’ Crowley, The Enigma, Bebe the Circus Queen. Acts ranged from the semi-tame (eating fire or live slugs) to the risky (lying on broken glass), and even to the downright bizarre (hanging clothing irons from their penis). It’s rough and risque, but also pretty darn fun. 

Wees describes why the troupe was such a success – partly being in the right place at the right time (Seattle at the birth of grunge, even with a Circus themed Lollapalooza in 1992) and partly the exceptional publicity skills of Jim Rose. However, Wees also shows us their slow implosion; laying out the critiques of the troupe’s members as their leader over micromanages, manipulates and eventually picks their once tight knit group apart from within. 

The second half of the film is interviews with troupe members as they are in the modern day. While this second is less enjoyable, it does make you think. What was the point of these intense acts? The other artists explain how they saw themselves as reviving the sideshows of early America, developing the stereotype of the modern wandering performer and bringing the romantic ideal of the countercultural carnie to the grunge scene. They do staunchly maintain that their ‘king’ Rose was simply in it for the money. 

While Circus of The Stars might be shocking at first, soon the sensationalism becomes banal and gives way to somewhat tiresome whingeing of the main acts as they list all of Rose’s faults. Nowadays the Circus might not be out of place amongst more of the racy acts at a Fringe Festival. The documentary however does drag on and doesn’t fully capitalise on the excitement of the first half. Definitely a good watch if you’re a grunge fan or you have a passing interest in the darker side of Fringe. 


CIRCUS OF THE SCARS is showing at the Perth Revelation Film Festival starting July 14th – Hit this link for more info on the movie and festival.