Film review by Jason Day of The Greatest Showman, the musical about circus impresario P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman. Co-starring Michelle Williams and Zac Efron.
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Born into poverty but working in the houses of the rich, young Phineas Taylor Barnum (Ellis Rubin) falls in love with upper class Charity (Skylar Dunn). He leaves to work on the railroads, promising to return and make her happy and support her in the life she has been brought up in. As an adult (Hugh Jackman) he comes back and marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and fulfils at least part of his bargain – they are happy and have two children, but live in polite poverty. After being sacked from a clerical job, Barnum hits upon the idea of starting a waxworks museum, similar to those in Europe. Needing something more original, he starts an indoor circus and ‘freak show’ of human oddities. Despite scathing media attention and a negative, aggressive community response to their presence, he soldiers on, determined to become the greatest showman.
Review, by Jason Day
Hurrah! To the production team responsible for assembling this A-grade, Big Top extravaganza!
Boo! To the critics grumbling that it is unconvincing and unrealistic.
Hello? It’s a fantasy film where people sing and dance in the most unlikely of places instead of sitting down with a cup of tea to talk about their problems. Realism takes a holiday at such times.
That’s not to say this film isn’t lacking in the area of ‘realism and representation’. It’s so-obvious-it-could-be-a-Disney-animation treatment of core social issues such as racism, poverty and body/facial nazism is lumpy and heavy-handed. Victorian society was markedly different to today’s and criticising it through the prism of our own, modern, more enlightened eyes can come across as a cheap and not always accurate stance to take. People did and said a lot that was wrong back then, but those were the mores of the day and had been for centuries. The Greatest Showman thrusts its feathers and sequins into a dissection of this and it comes across as hollow.
I’m starting to become that serious, lofty minded critic who unaccountably don’t rate this movie, so back to a film that I otherwise totally enjoyed.
For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t really like musicals that much. Funnily enough, for exactly the reason I noted above.
I can tolerate largely dramatic films with the musical interludes (A Star is Born, 1955; My Fair Lady, 1964), but generally get turned off by the prancing and dancing.
La La Land (2016) helped changed my opinion of the musical…a little. This modern, frothy, colourful confection with a sweet love story and rootin’ tootin’ choreography, trilled and twirled its little palpitating heart out and secured healthy audience numbers world-wide.
It also went on to scoop quite a few film awards (according to IMDb, 249 nomination and 218 wins, including 8 Academy Awards).
As La La Land evoked the classic MGM musicals of yesteryear, bringing them bang up to date with a modern, urban, working class sensibility, so The Greatest Showman walks an artistic tight-rope between different eras, with the lavish look of a mid-century period drama and the sound of a modern day musical piece.
We know this from the outset as the old 20th Century Fox logo blares out when the movie starts, quickly replaced by the up-to-date version. Even silent movie style intertitles are used for the opening credits.
The lyrical duo behind La La Land’s terrific, top-tapping tunes were Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and were two of the people to win Oscars for that film. They are back on musical duties here and I venture the opinion, that these new compositions (and the whole film) are better than those for La La Land.
These are punchy, gutsy, fun songs that at times fly far and away from the work of other lyricist/composers. There are two key songs that really hit home for me.
Firstly, Zac Efron and singer Zendaya’s soaring duet ‘Rewrite the Stars’, in which they open up about the racism and class differences that stands in the way of their love. This song show a huge growth in confidence from the pair, helped out by some faultless choreography as this beautiful pair. The whole number is clever and as dazzlingly stages as the heavens they sing about, whip around the Barnum circus on a rope.
The second is a very different number. Rebecca Ferguson stars as the real-life soprano Jenny Lind, whom Barnum managed for a tour of the states that made both of them multi-millionaires. Stood alone and covered in a ridiculously huge dress that cascades over the stage, she is practically immobile as she sings ‘Never Enough’ about how her vocal talent will never make her happy (its actually singer Loren Allred who delivers Ferguson’s chorus and verse).
It is deeply moving, stunning you into silence to stare fixedly at the screen and also sets the audience up to hear in the next scene about Lind’s own personal background (she was an illegitimate child. Her adult earnings are poured back into helping poor children in her native Sweden). The duality of the song (is she pining for handsome, but happily married Barnum?) has a simple but symphonic power.
Pasek and Paul are fast on their way to inheriting Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical genius mantle.
Jackman, who started out his career in musicals (the 1998 National Theatre revival of Oklahoma! is where his career got its first major boost) is high on charm, tune and sparkle as the man who might well be the progenitor of modern day PR razzmatazz.
He isn’t, for one blink of an eye, at all convincing as Barnum as a young man (Jackman looks his 49 years, but is still pleasing to the eye).
Returning from his few years away on the rail road, he looks like he has been gone for 40 years. It’s surprising that, as the focus of the film is on Barnum’s later years, a younger lookalike wasn’t used in these introductory moments.
Williams is sweet as his wife and the whole cast hardly put a foot wrong, with some exceptional star finds in the supporting cast, particularly Keala Settle as Bearded Lady Lettie Lutz. Settle sings her mighty, warm heart out about needing to find acceptance, comfort and family, even in Barnum’s cobbled together milieu of oddities and outcasts.
But then, all of life is a performance. From the dramatic or comic faces we project to those around us contrary to our real moods, to the social ‘dances’ we put ourselves through, The Greatest Showman covers a few of them.
From the circus and the clapping, roaring of the audience to the back stage drama, Jenny’s tremulous, emotionally brittle singing, the two-faced, snobbish ballet Barnum choreographs to ingratiate himself for acceptance or his daughter’s ballet recitals, we are all acting at some point.
And so, too, film critics who, like the theatre critic in Showman, profess a love for art, but can’t settle into their cinema seats, grab a bag of popcorn and enjoy a silly, dazzling, thoroughly enjoyable musical. Let’s hope I remember that advice for later reviews!
Cast & credits
Director: Michael Gracey. 105mins. Chernin Entertainment/TSG Entertainment/20th Century Fox. (PG)
Producers: Peter Chernin, Laurence Mark, Jenno Topping.
Writers: Jenny Picks, Bill Condon.
Camera: Seamus McGarvey.
Music: John Debney, Joseph Trapanese.
Sets: Nathan Crowley.
Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson.