THE RINGMASTER (2020, doc)

October 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve just finished reading an article proclaiming “addict” is now an offensive term, but since Zach Capp refers to himself as a gambling addict at the beginning of this movie, I guess it’s alright here. Let’s start by saying it’s not unusual for a documentary project to shift gears or change tracks during production. Sometimes a better story or topic pops up, and the filmmaker goes with it. But that’s not what this is. This is more ‘Mutiny on the Documentary’ and the result is a unique mess that still manages to hold our attention.

Zach discusses his 2015 stint in rehab (“it saved my life”) and subsequent inheritance from his grandfather. These two events led him to quit his very good job and pursue documentary filmmaking. His first subject? Onion rings. The onion rings he calls “a big part of my childhood”. After we hear numerous customers rave about these onion rings, we meet Larry Lang, the man responsible for the immensely popular tasty treats. Mr. Lang lives in Worthington, Minnesota, and we quickly realize he’s not the guy you would likely select as the centerpiece for a film. Well, we realize that, but Zach Capp never does.

We do learn that Zach had a vision, and this was to be the first in a series entitled “American Food Legends”. Following Larry around is somewhat less than stimulating, and we try to decide if he is simply socially awkward, or if he falls somewhere on the spectrum. His onion ring recipe is kept secret, and he brings the ingredients to work in a brown paper bag. Larry’s sister, Linda, acts as a kind of handler for him during the filming process with Zach and the crew. As a viewer, I often felt like they were intruding on this poor man, yet Zach and everyone involved treated Larry and Linda with respect.

The real cluster involves a garage band named Dead Man’s Party performing “Larry’s Song”, and continues on to the King Turkey Day Parade,  Badland’s Pawn – known for ‘Guns, Gold, and Rock ‘n Roll”, and ultimately, Badlands’ Speedway, where Larry’s onion rings are to be featured. Of course, most of Zach’s plans to “improve” Larry’s life fall flat because Larry is only happy when he’s in the kitchen he knows making onion rings for the locals who know him. It could be viewed as an intrusion with the best intentions … or it could be viewed as manipulation for selfish reasons.

However you view it, the aforementioned ‘mutiny’ occurs when the crew realizes Zach’s pursuit of the “Lord of the Onion Rings” (the original title) is more of a story than Larry Lang. Director Dave Newberg and his girlfriend Molly Dworski are called in to salvage a project that dragged out 3 years. The film is bookended with 2018 Las Vegas, as the onion rings are entered into a tasting as “Raider Rings” … an offering of the newly transplanted NFL Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas. This ties in the long-time Las Vegas restaurant Piero’s, and its owner. It would be nice to report a happy-ending or even bittersweet finale, but life tends to deliver in whatever manner fits. By the time this one ends, we are mostly confused and concerned. What a strange experience, and one that I’ll recall anytime onion rings hit my plate.

watch the trailer