In a week of devastation, the world premiere of “Billy Flanigan: The Happiest Man Alive” has brought a whirlwind of pixie dust joy to central Florida.
The documentary, telling the story of 40-year-old Walt Disney World actor Flanigan, debuted at the Garden Theater in Winter Garden last Saturday – the 51st anniversary of Disney World – during a party of arrivals on the red carpet, reunions, tears and laughter.
“I’m just humbled,” Flanigan said of the film and opening night hype. “If it helps someone who is struggling with something, then the movie has served its purpose.”
The film was inspired by Flanigan’s “Flanigrams” – song and dance numbers he created and delivered in a sung Telegram style during the COVID-19 entertainment industry shutdown. Wearing his lime-green helmet, he cycled to friends’ houses and put on a little show outside their doors.
Of course, as he explained in a post-movie Q&A, the reaction was sometimes unexpected. A friend, who was not dressed to receive visitors, slammed the door in his face. Others burst into tears at the unexpected kindness.
But “The Happiest Man on Earth” goes far beyond flanigrams. Orlando’s entertainment community should be heartened by the film’s exploration of how the pandemic shutdown has affected the lives of so many here, personally and professionally.
And you don’t have to be an artist to be moved by elements of Flanigan’s story – how he was bullied as a child and the effect on his family when, after years of marriage and four children, he came out as gay.
Incidentally, his family filled the front row of the theater on Saturday, cheering on their dad and joking with him about who the “favorite kid” is during the Q&A session. The film doesn’t shy away from the hardship caused by Flanigan’s exit, but it also shows how open hearts can heal.
“Your family is a shining example of the love, acceptance and resilience of the human spirit,” Disney friend and colleague Sheila Ward said after viewing the film.
The documentary is well paced as it introduces viewers to the man behind the million watt smile. An emotional original score underpins key scenes, and Disney lyrics cleverly break up the segments. Longtime Disney pianist Carol Stein composed an original song about Flanigan for the film, and the two performed it live at the premiere — true artists never shy away from a stage, after all.
Flanigan said he was amazed at how Stein crafted the song, titled “Behind Every Smile”, so quickly.
“Carol sat down, worked all night, called and said, ‘I think I get it,'” he recalled.
While the film touches on deeper issues, it is truly a feel-good film. A post-movie chat commentator said she was struck by how Flanigan said his bullying made him a nicer person, instead of a bitter one. And that idea – of choosing compassion over bitterness – shines throughout the documentary.
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After 40 years at Walt Disney World, Flanigan, 62, knows a lot of people in town — and they’ve filled the seats. But some Disney fans who “came across” after reading about it in the newspaper “said they too were moved by Flanigan’s story. They asked where they could currently see him perform ( “Finding Nemo: The Big Blue… and Beyond!”) and when.
“I don’t work weekends,” Flanigan joked, adding that he earned that advantage because “I’ve been here a long time.”
The documentary will be available to stream on iTunes ($12.99) on October 7 and a DVD will be released on November 15 on amazon.com ($19.95). The music from Rob Pottorf’s score, which includes Stein’s “Behind Every Smile,” is also available as a digital album for download from amazon.com ($9.95).
While laughter filled much of the premiere night as friends posed for photos on the red carpet and rushed to hug the beaming man of the hour, there was recognition of the destruction caused by Hurricane Ian. $1,000 from premiere ticket sales will be donated to relief efforts in Southwest Florida, producer Randy Goodwin announced.
Ward read a letter from Cullen Douglas, the documentary’s writer and director, who was unable to fly from Los Angeles.
“I hope the story, like Billy’s Flanigrams,” he wrote, “has given you a chance to smile, to hope, and maybe even to heal.”
Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts, facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or write to me at [email protected]. Want more theater and arts news and reviews? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts. For more fun things, follow @fun.things.orlando on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.