‘The Greatest Showman’ – A Crowd-Pleasing Musical | Film Review
Loosely based on the life of P. T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman is a biopic which mixes modern musical stylings with a classical filmmaking approach.
Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a tailor’s son who dreams big and ‘marries above his station’ when he elopes with his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams). After losing his job as a shipping clerk, Barnum takes a chance by entering to the entertainment business and assembles a group of outcasts for his live show that pleases the masses but is hated by New York’s elites.
In real life P. T. Barnum was a controversial figure: he was a narcissist whose circus abused animals and exploited people with disabilities and genetic conditions. The Greatest Showman does touch on this incredibly briefly with some of the ‘freaks’ not wanting to be laughed at – Barnum acknowledging people are fascinated by the exotic and the macabre and Barnum gets embarrassed by them time-to-time. But for the most part Barnum was made out to be the man championing their rights.
Barnum does have a discernible character arc of seeking legitimacy throughout his life. He is looked down by his father-in-law because of his lowly status and when Barnum does achieve success he is seen as the appealing to the lowest-common-dominator. He longs to be respected by New York’s high society and artistic community. As Barnum puts it, he was looked down upon, his father was looked down upon, and he does not want his daughters to suffer the same fate. Yet his quest for legitimacy blinds him to what really wants.
Zac Efron and Zendaya also have a romantic subplot as Phillip Carlyle, a wealthy playwright from old money and Anne, a trapeze artist. A taboo relationship because of their different social status, her race and profession. This is the closest the film gets to addressing some of the darker aspects of mid-19th Century society.
If you can look pass The Greatest Showman‘s historical revisionism then you should be in for a good time. The Greatest Showman is all about the big song and dance numbers and this is where the film succeeds. Talented people in front of and behind the camera worked on this film: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams and Zendaya all have experience in musicals and the La La Land writing duo Benj Pasek and Justin Page wrote the songs.
The Greatest Showman emerges its old-fashioned nature by starting with an old 20th Century Fox logo before jumping into a big number where the watching audience stomps a beat and the circus performers sing ‘The Greatest Show’.
The Greatest Showman is Michael Gracey‘s first film as a director having previously worked in special effects and as a commercials director. His experience was on display: the opening scene was a statement of intent because of all the dancing, circus performers and animals in a near continuous shot. The film had five editors which is usually a recipe for disaster but somehow it worked for The Greatest Showman with its montages during “A Million Dreams” when Barnum and Charity grow up and during “Tightrope“. Barnum was on tour with an opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) whilst the circus suffers from protesters. There is a great visual juxtaposition where Lind is showered with flowers whilst the circus performers are pleated with trash.
As a musical, The Greatest Showman had some great songs. The big numbers were “The Greatest Show“, “A Million Dreams” and “This is Me” by Broadway singer Keala Settle playing the bearded lady. Jackman and Efron had a high tempo duet as they negotiate a deal and Efron and Zendaya have a big romantic number as she performs her trapeze act. Although The Greatest Showman is a period piece, the music has a modern sound to them being fast, high tempo songs with modern instrumentals.
The Greatest Showman has been criticised by some critics because of its sugar-coated take of P. T. Barnum and the film does not help itself by having a snobby theatre critic played by Paul Sparks. It was the film’s justification that it was made for the masses and usually this is move would kill a film. But The Greatest Showman surpasses these issues: it is a perfectly joyous film for the winter season.