The Greatest Showman will work best with musical purists, those who aren’t turned off by spontaneous bursts of song and an overly sentimentalized view of history.
Crafting a biopic around circus impresario P.T. Barnum has always had controversy in its wake, particularly once the disabled community took to actively criticizing Barnum’s treatment of his “oddities.” In May of this year, the circus Barnum himself invented closed for good, mainly because of diminishing audiences and animal rights protests. So what does this mean for a film that hopes those fans will come to see a musical look at his life? The Greatest Showman is the best worst movie of the year, a bizarre, ambitious musical that hopes its peppy music – courtesy of the Oscar-winning duo of Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the songs for La La Land – will distract you from the sentimental softening of Barnum. With its beautiful costumes, spectacular choreography and a willing cast of great performers, you might just be the sucker born to enjoy this film.
P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a poor tailor’s son who marries the wealthy Charity (Michelle Williams) against her father’s wishes. The two have a sweet, but poverty riddled life causing P.T. to craft new ways of giving his wife and children all the things he never had. In the process he comes up with a museum and circus devoted to human oddities.
Visual effects specialist-turned-director Michael Gracey has his work cut out for him, and much of what sustains the audience during The Greatest Showman are the visuals and songs. The former is top-notch, opulent and beautiful to witness. Ellen Mirojnick’s costumes are beautifully suited to convey the ‘60s musical feel of the film, particularly evoked in Michelle Williams’ flowing pastel gowns and Zendaya’s rich, sparkling trapeze costumes. Splashes of color, a spill of bright fabrics to liven up a gray childhood, are deliberately parceled out. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey brushed up on his Busby Berkeley as the frame is littered with captivating aerial and crane shots to demonstrate the dizzying circus world.
Gracey and company hope to draw in audiences who enjoyed last year’s La La Land, or Moulin Rouge. But the strongest similarities found within The Greatest Showman are found on Broadway itself, where the film seeks to become a cinematic equivalent. Things kick into high gear immediately as the opening song, “The Greatest Show,” acts as a curtain raiser with the full ensemble on display. From there the film gives each of the actors a signature song, not unlike a staged musical, before culminating in a show-stopping finale. With no lull in the music there’s a strong pace to the narrative, with little time to get bogged down in the maudlin story.
Pasek and Paul’s score doesn’t have the jazzy melancholy or ‘60s New Wave feel of La La Land, instead hewing closer to old-school movie musicals of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Characters randomly burst into song with little rhyme or reason. Zac Efron, Jackman, Williams and Zendaya are all great to hear; Efron and Zendaya have a moment that takes place while doing trapeze moves that’s breathtaking to behold. Keala Settle is the one to listen to, however. Her powerhouse voice elevates musical numbers like the pounding “This is Me.” And if you thought La La Land had bad choreography, you’ll be amazed by the fantastic dance sequences that utilize all the cast’s athleticism.
So, we’ve got the good laid out, but what about the bad? The act of watching The Greatest Showman does a better job of illustrating P.T. Barnum’s flair for the false than anything else. With enough whizz-bang and flash thrown at you it’s easy to let that seduce you into forgetting the film’s narrative flaws. Historically speaking, P.T. Barnum was a racist, oppressive huckster content to outright buy the “oddities” he put on display in his human zoos. So it stands to reason that the script significantly softens Barnum as a character.
Hugh Jackman is charming and empathetic as a man desperate to give his wife and children the things he never had. For Jackman’s Barnum he reiterates how “they” – they being the unimaginative normal people who come to the circus – don’t truly see the value of the people he assembles. Mind you it’s hard not to think he means monetary value. The various individuals he brings together are never delineated as people, but rather a collective band of misfits who don’t object to Barnum pushing them aside for the same issues that made him money. There’s never any look at whether those he employs are financially successful, and, outside of Efron’s Phillip Carlyle and Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler, there are no attempts to get to the heart of the disabled characters. Settle and the others are interesting, but the only interest the script sees is them is their physical deformities, defeating the purpose the film seeks to espouse. When Settle’s Bearded Woman sings “This is Me,” it’s not a song of rebellion against Barnum for his exploitation, but a clarion call to the paying customers who sing along with her. It’s a bizarre series of mixed messages.
With that being said, the cast is wonderful. Zac Efron is ebullient and sweet as playwright Phillip Carlyle. His burgeoning relationship with Zendaya’s Ann is cute, even if its tackling of interracial relationships is simplistic. The aforementioned Settle is phenomenal. Unfortunately, Williams as Charity and Rebecca Ferguson as opera star Jenny Lind are grossly underutilized and possess the weakest songs.
The Greatest Showman will work best with musical purists, those who aren’t turned off by spontaneous bursts of song and an overly sentimentalized view of history. The script is slight, and the twee nature of it all situates itself as an undeserved redemption of Barnum’s character. But the music, cast and flair of it all makes for an attractive package.