Introduction: Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top was hyped when it was released straight to video back in 1996, being heavily promoted in CCM Magazine and in Christian bookstores. I was in my teens at the time and predominantly listened to CCM (contemporary Christian music), so the Australian-based Newsboys were a musical staple for me. I loved their albums Going Public and Take Me to Your Leader and appreciated their sense of humor that was often injected into their songs. (And, for the record, I still enjoy these albums today.) My youth group eventually saw this flick as part of World Vision’s 30-Hour Famine, a world hunger awareness event (and, evidently, this was included in the program packet distributed to churches). I found it to be comically kooky back then, but recently I was feeling nostalgic and decided to check it out on YouTube. But is Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top still a big deal or a big flop? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: When a beloved uncle dies, members of the Christian band the Newsboys (John James, Peter Furler, Phil Joel, Jody David, Duncan Phillips, and Jeff Frankenstein) find themselves struggling to carry out his last wish of managing a faltering circus teetering on the cusp of bankruptcy. In the end, they do their best to give it one final sendoff and, along the way, a prodigal son who ran away to join the circus discovers it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.
My Take: By show of hands, who else has seen this flick?
Anybody? Nobody? Okay, I kind of figured.
So allow me to be one the few persons on the Internet to review this zany, long forgotten nugget of CCM history.
In a nutshell, Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top “gives fans an unconventional look at the [titular] Christian band” and I concur. It truly is a weird little movie that, on the surface, seems worthy of derision. However, it really depends on the angle from which you want to critique it. From an artistic standpoint, the movie is cheap and the editing and cinematography are at times sloppy. Acting-wise, the performances are weak and it’s clear the Newsboys are better musicians than actors. To be fair, John James and Phil Joel make the hardest attempt of the lot but it’s obvious that they’re uncomfortable. Only Joel is the more convincing of the two, so I will give him credit for trying. Overall, from a cinematic standpoint, Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top seems more fitting as a freshman film school student’s low budget class project than anything worthy of tremendous buzz.
Yet if one assumes the perspective that this is only intended to serve as an extended musical video project, then this strange little flick actually works – not as a great or even a good movie, mind you, but more in the vein of “it is what it is.” This movie is actually very much akin to 1997’s theatrical release Spice World, which starred the Spice Girls as themselves, featured an essentially non-existent plot, and served chiefly as a vehicle to promote the Spice Girls’ music. And that’s exactly what Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top does: it stars the band members as themselves; has no real story but features loosely connected plot points, most of which are never resolved; and serves to showcase the Newsboys’ music, chiefly from their 1996 album Take Me to Your Leader. Thus, if watched with the understanding that this is all the movie aspires to be, then it can’t be faulted too much for fulfilling these aims.
Story-wise, Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top is supposed to be a retelling of the band’s song “Reality,” which was the first single from Take Me to Your Leader. The song itself is a re-imagining of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son as it tells the story of a young man who ran away to the circus but is now disillusioned and destitute. However, the chorus and bridges serve to remind the fictional prodigal – as well as listeners – that God lovingly welcomes back wayward souls. In the movie, the story begins by featuring Phil Joel as the prodigal son who has joined Circus Luigi and who is both disheartened by his plight and strapped for cash. In principle, an idea like this could have worked if the movie stuck more firmly to this plot thread.
The second plot that tries to keep its balance has John James and his musical cohorts try to honor his late Uncle Luigi’s dying wish that James give Circus Luigi the send off it deserves. Feeling more comfortable being a front man than a ringmaster, James reluctantly agrees and tries to rally the support and assistance of the circus’ motley crew of performers such as clown pairing Sack (played by musician Phil Maderia) and Hack, a set of identical twin sisters, a strongman, and Phil Joel, who serves as the circus’ jack-of-all-trades. Again, this is an idea that could have worked provided the movie kept its focus.
Sadly, the plot dissolves into quasi-vignettes that involve various members of the Newsboys learning the ins and outs of the circus business, promoting the circus’ final show, and contending with a mafioso who oversees a “little people” union who threatens to back out as a creditor and accuses Sack of purporting to be a person of small stature (even though he isn’t). Again, it reminds me very much of Spice World, which had the Spice Girls dealing with everything from consoling a pregnant friend, to performing, to aliens (yes, you read that correctly). While Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top is slightly more focused thanks to an isolated setting, it’s still a chaotic mess of a story.
As stated, most of the plot lines aren’t fully resolved. Joel has a spiritual awakening but there’s no true homecoming, and Circus Luigi’s last show is rarely glimpsed save for its penultimate performance while the rest of it is imagined in various characters’ heads of how the night might go. The villain who is trying to get back at Sack for insert-random/cliched-reason-here is only glimpsed twice and that arc is never sufficiently resolved. Likewise, the movie basically just ends to make room for the rest of the Newsboys’ performance of “Reality” and the full-length music video for “Shine” from their album Going Public.
Along the same lines, the movie doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Though it’s obviously a comedy, many of the jokes fall flat though a few do warrant some honest chuckles. At times the movie cuts away for “interviews” with various persons in a quasi-documentary style, but these moments do nothing to add to the story, what little there is. The same goes for the musical numbers, two of which are performances and two are music videos. The performed songs, “Reality,” which bookends the movie, and “Breathe” are good songs by themselves but their incorporation is a bit stretched. “Reality” works to set up the prodigal son story but doesn’t get the justice it deserves thanks to a directionless plot.
Even more perplexing is “Breathe,” which the band performs while filming a promo video for the circus, as nothing about its inclusion makes any sense. The lyrics don’t tie into anything we’re seeing through the quasi-montage sequence and it’s shot like a makeshift music video where the circus performers and band members stand in a line and sing/lip sync the chorus. However, while “Reality” at least makes some sense in terms of its inclusion, “Breathe” does not as, lyrically, it’s a confessional song that pleads, “Breathe on me/Breathe oh Breath of God/Breathe on me/’til my heart is new.” I like this song and its message, but it has nothing to do with the scene it’s inserted into and nothing much to do with the story as a whole.
The music videos’ inclusion is even more puzzling as, again, it seems so random, not to mention they both come at the end of the movie so the final few minutes feels top-heavy. The video for “Take Me to Your Leader” at least has some sort of set up with director Steve Taylor being “interviewed,” describing how he wanted to include the video as a dream sequence. Afterwards, we see the actual music video (which, honestly, is fun and straight-up 90s kookiness), only to learn that Phil Joel dreamed the whole thing in a closing scene redolent of one similar in The Wizard of OZ. Granted this whole “it was all a dream” technique has been done before, but it at least sort of works here. But the final video, “Shine,” is randomly inserted and bears no weight on the movie as a whole other than to act as a prelude to the credits. Hence, collectively, Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top is a disconnected, discombobulated musical comedy complete with random fourth wall breaks and an overall chaotic, unresolved plot.
But all of that being said…I’d still say check it out.
Yes, seriously. Because I think it’s worth watching for its strange little merits.
Is it terrible from a cinematic perspective? Absolutely. Does it have storytelling issues? Without question. However, it possesses an awkward, oddball charm that is kind of fun. It’s as if the flick knows it’s not very good and pokes fun at itself by not taking itself too seriously. The music showcases some of the Newsboys’ best tunes from the late 90s even if it isn’t seamlessly woven in. And the Newsboys themselves seem to know they’re not actors, so they just go with the movie’s quirky flow. The same holds true for two guest stars, singer Gary Chapman and comedian Mark Lowery, both of whom have minor roles as a clergyman and a video director, respectively. Neither of them are actors, that much is clear, but like the Newsboys, they resign themselves to the ridiculousness of it all.
I’d trust that probably none of the Newsboys involved in this project would care to remember this flick, but it’s supposed to be kitschy and the movie itself seems to accept that. Even its confusing awkwardness possesses a strange sense of cheesy charm – from John James (who is Australian) having an Italian-speaking uncle, to Gary Chapman’s clearly not Italian character being fluent in Italian, to Sack’s strange beef with the “little people” union seeing as he’s clearly not a “little person” himself, to Hack the Clown’s unexplained fascination with flies, to the Newsboys’ in-depth discussion about how bagels get made, among other head-scratching, what-the-heck moments. And in a strange way, it’s all kind of refreshing.
Likewise, Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top steers clear from being a cliched Christian movie, meaning it doesn’t seek to sermonize but organically inserts some teachable moments. Prayer is shown to be a vital component to the band’s new undertaking, and the Newsboys even host chapel services for the circus performers. As stated, one of the plots is a very loose retelling of the parable of the prodigal son, and John James eventually chats with Phil Joel about his life’s choices, giving Joel a “Gideon’s guide” (a Bible) and encouraging him to check it out for himself. Joel does so and later tells James that he felt he could relate to the prodigal son and begins to see some hope for himself. Lastly, James asserts the challenge of giving Circus Luigi one last send off might be a chance for him and his band mates to learn more about hope, faith, and love (as opposed to just making money). While ultimately this flick is as spiritually deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool, it does showcase teamwork, perseverance, and a willingness to step out in faith to tackle challenges along with a respectful, non-preachy appreciation for the life-changing influence of the Gospel.
So in the end, Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top, for all its glaring flaws, still accomplishes what it set out to do: be a kitschy but clean musical comedy and serve as a vehicle to promote the Newsboys’ music. And if you don’t expect it to be anything more than that, then this is one zany flick you just might want to see to believe.
Content Breakdown: Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top is unrated; however, I’d probably award it a G due to its lack of any significant content issues. Hence, my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – None. One circus member asks John James during a chapel service if he thinks the financially strapped circus is going straight to “H-e-double L,” but the word isn’t actually spoken nor meant as a curse word.
Violence – Essentially none. There are some moments of slapstick, such as when Sack teaches the Newsboys the art of clownish comedy, which involves various band members being “hurt” Three Stooges-style (such as getting hit on the head or smacked in the face with a pie), but it’s played for comedic effect and no one ever comes to any real harm (though one band member spits out fake teeth and another spits fake blood after being “hurt,” but Sack advises him to lose the blood because it’s too scary). Likewise, a circus worker inadvertently causes an accident that lands two persons in the hospital (we never see the actual accident on-screen) but, again, this is slapstick and played for laughs. Lastly, James’ uncle passes away in a peaceful manner as he is surrounded by friends and family who openly mourn him.
Sexual Material – None. A set of identical twin sisters who work at the circus think one of the Newsboys called them “darlin'” (he actually addresses one of the girls by name, which is Darlene, but his Australian accent affects his pronunciation). This misinterpretation becomes a semi-running gag but it’s completely innocent and has no sexual or sensual connotations behind it.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended as there isn’t much here of interest to small children.
Older Children & Teens – Somewhat recommended, especially if younger viewers are fans of the band (though the Newsboys’ newest members, such as former dc Talk alum Michael Tait, aren’t in the movie) or they enjoy oddball humor that, to its credit, keeps it clean.
Young Adults & Adults – Somewhat recommended, especially for fans of the 1990s’ line up of the Newsboys (specifically during the Going Public and Take Me to Your Leader years); for casual viewers who enjoy awkward, oddball humor; and for fans of kitschy music-centric movies akin to Spice World.
Overall, Newsboys: Down Under the Big Top is a strange little flick that kind of needs to be seen to be believed. Is it good? No, provided you’re looking for a deeply moving artistic experience or even good, clever cinematic amusement. But its offbeat, oddball, flagrantly awkward charm does hold its own and, for that, it’s worth checking out on YouTube or VHS to see it for yourself.