Director: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson
The Greatest Showman tells the story of P.T. Barnum (Jackman), the ostentatious American show/businessman, and his rise to prominence not just in the entertainment industry of 19th century North America, but also within the social elite on both sides of the Atlantic. Having been in the works for the past seven years and a personal project of lead actor Hugh Jackman, this movie has been a long time coming. But was it worth it?
From an entertainment perspective the film does not disappoint. Throughout we are fed many a delightful, catchy tune, courtesy of the very lyricists who brought us similarly delightful and catchy tunes via La La Land, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It is a good job the songs are so fabulous, as they are interspersed with a plot that, truthfully, lacks in substance. Comparisons have been made between Gracey’s film and Baz Luhrmann’s wonderfully eccentric Moulin Rouge!, and rightly so – the contemporary score makes for a more modern feel, with Pasek stating it would show “how ahead of his time PT Barnum was”. It runs in a similar vein to that which snakes through Lurhmann’s musical. Luhrmann uses (mostly) popular songs that do slot in nicely into his narrative, and although Pasek and Paul’s were written specifically for The Greatest Showman, they too could easily lift into another narrative, as they do not feel specifically written for Gracey’s film, lyrically; you’ve got your standard “I want” song in the form of A Million Dreams (featuring the stunning vocal talents of Ziv Zaifman singing as the young Barnum whilst represented on-screen by Ellis Rubin), the “tragic love” song in Tightrope, the “redemptive” song in From Now On, an epic finale in a reprise of The Greatest Show, and all those in-between songs that push the narrative along neatly. Gracey’s modern approach to the score just emphasises the juxtaposition of a present-day sound and a backward-thinking story. If the story had been stronger, Gracey’s employment of Pasek and Paul ought to have been more justified: La La Land flips the use of an old style of music (Jazz) and a modern story on its head, the outcome being something that echoes what is great about musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood: timelessness. Despite the use of modern music styles and the story’s intention to use classic themes, the same does not ring true for The Greatest Showman.
The story arc, whilst apparently well-meaning, is not without its flaws. The story of Barnum’s circus is really one of exploitation, manipulation and ignorance. One could argue that the film purely represents the time of its setting, when those different from plain white folk were considered oddities, or worse, with women also feeling the raw end of whatever deal Barnum makes. However in modern cinema we have come to expect more from our films and screenwriters, particularly in this day and age when more and more people are standing up for their basic human rights. The songs, as award-worthy as they are, appear more as distraction from the fact the film doesn’t touch nearly enough on the political and personal, on Barnum’s part, incorrectness that ought to have been a core theme. It would be interesting to see what would have happened if the singing and dancing were lifted and replaced with pure dialogue. There could have been many more levels to this film that would have invited a stronger reception from its audience.
Perhaps one of the film’s most stand-out redeeming virtues can be seen in the relationship between playwright and Barnum’s partner Phillip Carlyle (Efron) and circus performer Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Drawn to each other and yet frowned upon by society due to their difference in ethnicity, their duet, Rewrite the Stars, showcases a want to go against the status quo, believing they can be who they want and with whom they want, no matter the consequence. Strange how such a concept should still resonate so strongly this late into the 21st century, but resonate it does, and it is finally something the audience can connect with, even without the medium of music. The same could be said for when the company of Barnum’s circus, now shunned by Barnum as he welcomes his new life in high society, get together for a strong performance of This Is Me, a song about the not-so-original-but-nonetheless-currently-apt concept of overcoming diversity, led by Lettie, the bearded lady (another ovation-worthy performance by the talented Keala Settle).
Jackman himself puts in a fantastic performance as the determined Barnum, but that’s all it seems to be: a performance. Jackman sings and dances his way through the film as Barnum as though nothing is ever truly awry – even his “redemptive” tune, From Now On, feels like he is being let off lightly from the negative nature of his actions. The people he rubs up the wrong way either forgive him far too easily or are left as a loose end, their part in his tale never to be resolved. Yet it must be said that the charm and charisma brought to the screen by Jackman makes these flaws almost forgivable. The dedication from Jackman, and the company as a whole, is felt throughout the film and the belief in what they are making is truly palpable. Jackman is the perfect leading man for this production, his voice having grown significantly stronger and more adept since his performance in Les Miserables. His time in musical theatre and performing in his own concerts between then and now has clearly proven to be invaluable in his development. Other performances such as Efron’s and Williams’ fall in line spectacularly, with Efron sounding more smouldering now than in his previous High School Musical and Hairspray performances, and really, who knew Williams had a voice!? And such a voice! The many hooks that are heard throughout and outstanding physical and vocal performances amidst a floundering plot are what give this film its life, even if it doesn’t really have a voice. The performers carry the film, and if they were anything less than extraordinary the whole production would have crumbled under a heavy weight of elephants-in-the-room (many a pun intended).