'The Flight Fantastic': Film Review

Courtesy of Dance on Camera Festival
Charismatic subjects and daredevil footage help padded-feeling doc.

Dance on Camera kicks off with the Flying Gaonas, onetime stars of Lincoln Center's Big Apple Circus.

A big-top dynasty gets its due, more or less, in The Flight Fantastic, Tom Moore's portrait of the four siblings who spent decades performing as the Flying Gaonas. Attentive to certain details but sometimes distracted by tangents that add little to its core story, the film will play best with hard-core circomaniacs and at performance-centric fests like this one. Though its stars had little trouble captivating crowds from the 60s through the 80s, it would take a different kind of movie to carry them to mainstream audiences today.

Largely skipping over the history of their ancestors' success in circuses, the doc starts with patriarch Victor (a comic performer once known as "the Chaplin of the trapeze"), who bought a trampoline for his backyard and found that his children would never leave the thing alone. Soon he had a family act on his hands, hitting big TV variety shows with his acrobatic progeny. As family lore has it, it was the Carol Reed film Trapeze, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, that inspired the youngsters to focus their attention on more lofty entertainments, and the Flying Gaonas were born.

Though brothers Armando and Richie and sister Chela get plenty of screen time here, interviewees all acknowledge that Tito Gaona was the star of the family, a charismatic ladies' man whose graceful triple-somersault (with a pirouette back up to his trapeze bar) became a staple of their shows. Tito's long pursuit of a quadruple somersault, which he never managed to do in front of a crowd, supplies something like drama for the doc, affording Moore a reason to draw in one contemporary character (Miguel Vazquez, who succeeded in the feat) to balance the story of one of Tito's idols, which briefly takes over the film: The rise and tragic fall of trapeze star Alfredo Codona is recounted, silent film-style, with title cards and old newsreels.

Many viewers will wish Moore had been able to bring more color and drama to his account of the quartet's career peak, and had left most of his present-day footage in the cutting room. We get long, sometimes enjoyable but usually unneeded, looks at two of the trapeze schools currently run by Gaonas: one for Californians from all walks of life (actress Lili Taylor is among the students); another for children seeking distraction from cancer treatment. The camps look like great fun, and may find some new customers among the film's viewers. But given the dearth of docs about the heyday of circus arts, one wishes for more of that spotlight showmanship on the screen.


Director-Producer: Tom Moore

Directors of photography: John Harrison, Tom Moore

Editor: Jonathan Lucas

Venue: Dance on Camera Festival, Film Society of Lincoln Center

97 minutes