“Circus Maximus” is credited as having been written and directed by Travis Scott, but it’s an anthology comprised of work by a lot of other directors, including Harmony Korine, Nicolas Winding Refn, Gaspar Noe, and Kahlil Joseph, and you have to guess who directed what until the end credits. By the time you read this, the film will likely no longer be available in theaters, though it’s possible that it could reappear as a one-off curiosity or midnight movie.
The movie begins with a science-fiction-y scene of Scott grappling with a squid-like monster, then eases us into an epic journey montage, with Scott crossing various terrains as if he’s en route to drop a cursed ring into Mt. Doom. His ultimate destination, however, turns out to be the home of a guru-like figure played by producer Rick Rubin. The film returns to their conversations, turning them into a framing device. The conversations border on incoherent—the discussions about connecting people’s energies and not allowing them to be broken sounds like something a musician would say on a press junket when he’s high and not mad at anybody, and in general, it’s all vague enough that nothing in it can be tied to anything specific in real life. These talks are shot with an oval-shaped matte around the image that alternately suggests that the speakers are being surveilled through binoculars or watched by a cyclops (sometimes the image “blinks”).
What follows is a series of music videos, essentially, some better than others, including one shot in Ghana with seemingly hundreds of extras; a sequence directed by Refn in which Scott careens through city streets in a taxi driven at high speed by a creepy crash test dummy, while calmly smoking weed; a dance floor fantasia co-produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo; and a segment where Scott takes part in a human pyramid in a packed stadium.
Scott must know he’s courting trouble with crowd imagery—ten fans were fatally crushed at one of his 2021 concerts at Houston’s Astroworld festival, though a Texas grand jury subsequently declined to indict Scott or anyone associated with the event. It’s also possible that the beast that embraces Scott in the opening is his guilt, fear of consequences, or something along those lines. But the movie is cryptic or coy about such things. While this is as it should be, in what is basically an experimental film, more clarity of purpose (as in “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles Brothers’ documentary of the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont) might’ve made the material land harder.
Surely not coincidentally, the music videos fall into two categories, crowd or no crowd. The bulk of the film is a concert done without fans, repeating a lot of the same tracks showcased in the music video portion of the film and unfolding entirely in the eponymous chariot racing stadium in Rome, which also happens to be the site of the single worst disaster in the history of spectator sports: over 1,000 people were killed when the venue’s upper tier collapsed. Scott performs mostly solo, although collaborators join him at various points. The collaborators approach from the outer edges of the stadium and are tracked to the center area, often without cuts.