The documentary The Ringmaster tells two stories. On the one hand, it focuses on the onion rings created by chef Larry Lang, which are considered the world’s best by those who’ve tasted them. On the other, it follows the filmmaker, Zachary Capp, as he becomes increasingly consumed by his project, sinks more and more time and money into it, and starts manipulating events in an effort to design the perfect ending for his movie. It’s a fascinating, if often uncomfortable look, at how Capp’s obsession impacted Lang’s life and why Capp felt what he was doing was justified.
Capp’s idea for a documentary about Lang’s onion rings initially came about after he completed a stint in rehab for a gambling addiction. While he was there, he developed an interest in filmmaking and felt the onion ring documentary could establish his legitimacy. As luck would have it, around the same time, he inherited some money from his grandfather, which allowed him to bankroll his dream project. He formed a production company (complete with branded baseball caps) and gathered a small team, but it was really Larry’s older sister Linda, a woman who’d spent 20 years attempting to make it in show business in Los Angeles, that gave Capp the access to Larry he needed to make his film.
The problem was Larry, who’d spent his entire life living in a small town in Minnesota, was not Linda. The elderly Larry had a quirky personality but he was far from outgoing, and from the beginning, didn’t seem comfortable with the attention that making the film required. Still, Capp continues to push, and with more or less unlimited resources to keep the project going, his shoot stretches to three years as he stages birthday parties for Lang, gets him involved in public events and even at one point brings in the band KISS to judge his onion rings. While Lang never asks for any of this, Capp feels it’s a win-win: he’s following his filmmaking passion and his documentary will give the Langs the opportunity to cash in on their onion rings. As Capp’s manipulations of Larry get increasingly out of control, his team surreptitiously turns the cameras on him. In the end, this shifted the focus of the movie enough to result in two of Capp’s crew members, Molly Dworsky and Dave Newberg, serving as the film’s directors, while Capp receives credit as a writer and producer.
Capp was able to justify just about anything he did for his documentary, although he was initially reluctant to believe he had replaced his gambling addiction with his obsession with the film. As a viewer though, Capp’s willingness to overlook what Larry wants for what he feels Larry needs becomes increasingly disturbing, especially since Capp’s supposed desire to help the Langs only serves to justify the selfish actions he takes in pursuit of the film he envisions. It’s both fascinating and horrifying to watch Capp delude himself into believing he’s doing the right thing while bringing the reluctant Larry along for the ride.
As a result, what starts out as an idea for a light-hearted documentary about onion rings becomes increasingly dark. The Ringmaster sheds light on how passion can turn into obsession and how far people can be willing to go in pursuit of their dreams. While I wish the film had delved into the psychology behind Capp’s actions further, it is still intriguing. It’s a truly unique documentary that provides a clear-eyed look at Capp and Lang, and what can happen when what seems like innocent enthusiasm spirals out of control.