When trapeze artist Miguel Vazquez pulled off the once-unthinkable quadruple somersault at a Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus performance in 1982, the world took notice. Tom Brokaw announced the accomplishment on the NBC Nightly News, and the spectacle was documented prominently in the pages of TIME and The New York Times. The news also captured the imagination of Philip Weyland, an actor who maintained a love of the circus arts well into adulthood.
Of course, the circus stopped being the subject of such broad public fascination at the national level (at least most of the time), but though the spectacle under the big top has continued. Weyland, in his first turn as a documentarian, tracked down Vazquez, his famous circus family and others risking their lives to put on what may still be the greatest show on earth. The result of six years of research and interviews by Weyland is The Last Great Circus Flyer, a documentary hosting its world premiere April 17 at the Sarasota Film Festival. That means the first audiences for the film will be in a community where much of the documentary was shot, and in a locale where the circus is so much a part of history that its celebration will never fall out of style.
“I didn’t consider any other film festival,” Weyland tells SRQ Backlot. “This film is about people who lived in Sarasota, who live in Sarasota and is of interest to the people who live in Sarasota.”
Weyland’s own life in performance ended up outside the circus ring—he instead spent decades working as a dialogue coach and stand-in for actor William Shatner. But he was already fascinated with the Vazquez Brothers—Miguel and brother Juan—before the national story about the somersault. He had grown up watching the circus, both in real life and on movie and television screens. The culture of the circus always held his interest, even though he personally had trouble doing a somersault on the ground. He knew that trapeze artists long felt a ‘quad’ in the air was impossible, but that this teenaged team meant to prove conventional wisdom wrong. So he knew it was a big deal when a 17-year-old Miguel pulled off that fourth flip in the air during a show and the world took notice.
Of course, as time passed, he did not follow the circus team’s career closely. In the early days of the internet, he searched for news about Miguel Vazquez and found an article that erroneously stated the performer had fallen to his death in a show; it was actually Vazquez’s cousin who had died. The news was enough to keep Weyland away from the circus for a decade. Years afterward, Weyland was confronted with the news Vazquez was still alive.
“About 14 years later, I said I think I can stop mourning that event, and I went on YouTube,” Weyland recalls. “There, I came across a trapeze act, and it was Miguel and Juan, who had enjoyed a terrific 14 years. It was a real shock to me. It was like I was seeing a ghost. And I said I have got to do a documentary film.”
While Miguel Vasquez had left the spotlight by then, Weyland was able to track him down. Vazquez, who took the quad out of his shows in 1994 and stopped performing altogether 10 years later, was working behind the scenes at Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas, while his brother Juan worked across town at famed circus show Le Reve. The filmmaker convinced the ex-performers to take part in the documentary, and The Last Great Circus Flyer suddenly had its foundational story.
The film goes beyond the story of just the Vazquez Brothers. Weyland tracked down circus performers around the world who continue to put their life at risk with no hope of making the Nightly News. “It was important for me that audiences understand this is not an easy thing,” Weyland says. Indeed, one of the artists Weyland intended to interview, Tito Montoya, fell to his death in 2010, all in service of a performance to a small town South Carolina audience.
Weyland titled his film The Last Great Circus Flyer because it seems doubtful today that even if a trapeze artist surpassed a new milestone that it was be covered with the same attention showered on Vazquez. But the show goes on.
The Last Great Circus Flyer will premier at the Regal Hollywood 20 in Sarasota on Friday, April 17, at 3pm. Weyland, Vazquez and other subjects in the film will be in attendance. A second showing of the film will screen Saturday April 18, at 9:15pm.
Above: Miguel Vazquez, first trapeze performer to complete the “Impossible” quadruple somersault, is seen practicing during the filming of the documentary film, “The Last Great Circus Flyer”. Movie still courtesy Philip Weyland.