Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus Story
(USA, 94 min.)
Dir: Larry Confino
Section: Metropolis Competition (World Premiere)
In the late 1960s, there was no place on Earth like The Electric Circus. Co-founded by former WME agent Jerry Brandt and Steppenwolf manager Stan Freeman, it was the epitome of the era’s drug-laced, rock-fueled psychedelia, a watering hole for the counterculture that saw artists like Jimi Hendrix and Tina Turner mingling with the likes of Andy Warhol and Leonard Bernstein. Flooded in strobe lights and populated by a wide array of alternative circus performers, young people couldn’t get enough. Now imagine the palpable irony in listening to a bunch of senior citizens wax poetic about a movement so ahead of its time. This is the central tension of Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus Story, a new documentary that pays tribute to the club and the many talents that contributed to its brief but explosive success.
Brandt and Freeman meet as Steppenwolf – then the Canadian rock outfit The Sparrows – gain success. However, both of them become intrigued when they come across The Electric Circus, a traveling, open air concert experience that combined projection light shows with musical performance. The two wind up settling the brand down in the East Village and amassing an extensive crew of artists and technicians to create what became a singular experience in New York nightlife. Brandt and Freeman’s testimonies anchor the film’s history lesson (the fact both of them would pass away during post-production makes their insights all the more valuable) but are supplemented by a variety of personalities and direct sources, from musicians who played on stage to the performers who got within inches of the club’s audience.
As it begins, it’s unclear if director Larry Confino has enough material to sustain this story for 90 minutes. He has amassed a great wealth of interview subjects, all of whom feel like an earnest contribution to the film’s first-hand account of the venue’s lifecycle. However, a lack of archival video leaves little material to accentuate everything that the film’s many talking heads talk about. Confino mostly resorts to pictures, as well as a meager visual aesthetic that uses compositing and motion graphics to attempt to populate the frame with something evocative or interesting. More often than not, it adds little pomp to a story that doesn’t need the extra novelty.
It doesn’t feel like enough, but then the film actually enters the club and a shift gradually occurs. More video of the club itself is stitched into the edit, albeit never quite as immersively as other preservational music docs like Summer of Soul or The Beatles: Get Back. The film goes further and further down the club’s historic rabbit hole, revealing more and more incredulous stories and tidbits that simply needed to be documented. The aforementioned visual effects take more precedence and eventually begin to absorb the film’s spiritual substance. Finally, and most especially, the film introduces the era’s political upheaval as a major point of context that elevates the club’s status as a post-racial utopia. The combination of these elements creates an alchemy of entertainment that, slowly, actually begins to represent the appeal of its subject matter.
There’s always a feeling that Confino could go further in the film’s trippiness, especially for a story so laced with acid at every turning point. As accessible as its conventions are – the groovy soundtrack, the film overlays during b-roll, interview after interview stitched together into a coherent narrative – a moment this experiential deserves a documentary that takes the plunge to go far out. Confino never quite gets there, but he gets somewhere arguably more valuable, which is an evocation of something lost that the Circus took with it. Older audiences will be delighted to reenter the Circus’ psychedelic safe haven and the memories it holds, but newer generations, in a politically charged post-pandemic environment, will yearn in their own way. They will long to inhabit a universe so untethered to technology, an artistically uninhibited and musically charged oasis where they can get lost in a rainbow-colored ecstasy. This is what Psychedelicized captures in its admiration, and this should not be taken for granted.
Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus Story screened as part of DOC NYC 2023.
It will be available on the festival’s virtual platform from now until November 26.
It is currently seeking distribution.