YOU CLEARLY HAVE A FLAIR FOR SHOW BUSINESS
The Greatest Showman
Review by Paul Preston
From the first moment of The Greatest Showman, director Michael Gracey lays out exactly what you’re going to get for the next hour and forty-five minutes. You’re buying into it or you’re not, and that’s exactly how the film’s protagonist, P.T. Barnum, would want it.
If you’re thinking The Greatest Showman has some songs in it, you’d be wrong. The Greatest Showman is a flat-out glorious, larger-than-life MUSICAL (capitals required) and proud of it. Director Gracey fills the screen with dreamlike visuals, stunning choreography and creatively staged numbers all wrapped around catchy and beautiful new songs from Oscar-winning La La Land lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
The story concerns Phineas Taylor Barnum in pursuit of something higher than his job at a shipping company (amongst flashbacks to his hard-fought youth and longtime love affair with his eventual wife, Charity). He uses a lie forged at the office to secure bank funds for a museum that brings exotic creatures and places of the world close to those who visit. From here, he employs live acts, eventually building the circus.
Hugh Jackman as Barnum is a decision straight out of The No Shit Casting Service. He’s been wanting to get this project going for about eight years and he brings everything to it. Michelle Williams is predictably solid as Charity, and who knew she could sing, but she delivers “Tightrope” beautifully (and points to the younger Phineas and Charity, who are effective and have wonderful voices). Rebecca Ferguson is impossibly good-looking as Jenny Lind, The Swedish Nightingale, who Barnum backs for wildly successful U.S. tour, while she tempts his heart.
There has been much made about the historical inaccuracies of the film. For example, Zac Efron’s character, Phillip Carlyle, a young socialite Barnum pursues to invest in his endeavors, is invented for the film. As is the young black trapeze artist, Anne (played by Zendaya), that he falls for. Eventually, in history, Barnum teams with James Bailey to start the circus as we know it. Efron could’ve played a re-imagined version of Bailey, but instead they started from scratch. It’s odd that the film chose to invent the upper class/lower class/black/white love affair to address as a social issue while there are many other issues that are true-to-life that you could explore, like Barnum’s exploitation of unique people or even his involvement in minstrel shows. But is this the place for any of that? From the get-go, this film has no desire to be realistic, and not for nothing, people break into song and dance quite frequently, which most likely didn’t happen in the mid-1800s. Also, the Carlyle/Anne love affair is not the strongest element of the script. It felt like a pit stop when the movie had other things to do, not unlike in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, when we stop everything to go to Canto Bight for an environmental lesson on animal cruelty. Unnecessary. The Greatest Showman is a love letter to showmanship and optimism, taking a deep dive into social dynamics would derail such a thing. There are far more serious films like Gladiator which won Best Picture while incorrectly recreating place and time. Go crawl up their ass. Or Argo’s. Don’t believe me, believe Tom Stoppard, who said about his film Shakespeare in Love, “This film is entertainment, which doesn’t require it to be justified in the light of historical theory.”
I can’t say enough about these songs, but I’ll try:
– “The Greatest Show”. This is your intro song, introducing you to the fact that Pasek and Paul are going anachronistic with their music style. It’s a hype-builder of epic proportions with great staging by FIRST-TIME director Gracey.
– “A Million Dreams”. “A million dreams are keeping me awake” is just an excellent lyric. This song features great vocals from the young actors.
– “Come Alive”. Hype song #2, with energy impossible to avoid.
– “The Other Side”. Efron and Jackman deliver this song with inventive choreography (a lot of decisions are made in this movie in a bar).
– “Never Enough”. Pasek and Paul take a title I’ve heard a million times and infuse importance and power into it.
– “This is Me”. This is also the film’s best bet at a Best Original Song Oscar, a declarative anthem for the ages.
– “Rewrite the Stars”. The best reason to keep the Carlyle/Anne subplot in the film, this is a nice ballad but is delivered with lively presentation in the air, on the ground, and all over the center ring.
If I had a criticism, there’s a murky point revolving around one of the final songs, “From Now On”. The film softens Barnum’s affair with Lind to keep a happy ending on target and despite his mistreatment of the circus “freaks”, Barnum is missing a real come-to-Jesus moment on his role in it all. “From Now On” seems to be a song of forgiveness that Barnum only half earns. Overall, though, I’m still in a passionate love affair with the music from La La Land and now it seems I’ll have to cheat on those tunes to start something up with this soundtrack, and it seems I’m overdue to see Dear Evan Hansen.
The Greatest Showman is unapologetically cinematic and richly imagined, beginning to end. 2017 is littered with lazy, unimaginative films like Justice League, The Fate of the Furious, Baywatch and The Mummy. I encourage you taking this in as something big, bold and risky, which we don’t get enough.
Directed by: Michael Gracey
Release Date: December 20, 2017
Run Time: 105 Minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox