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[Review] – ‘The Greatest Showman’


Release Date: 20 December 2017 [USA] - 26 December 2017 [UK]
Director: Michael Gracey
Writer: Jenny Bicks - Bill Condon
Cast: Hugh Jackman - Michelle Williams - Zac Efron - Zendaya - Rebecca Ferguson - Austyn Johnson - Cameron Seely - Paul Sparks

Posted January 7, 2018 by

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‘It’s better to hoodwink people if it makes them smile.’ This message, a key line of dialogue, makes The Greatest Showman the first musical of the Donald Trump era. The narrative arc has impresario and circus owner Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) not just present the misfits of society as exotic acts – a 500lb man is given stuffing to make him appear to weigh 750lb – but also attempt to find acceptance from the moneyed classes by bringing the ‘Swedish Nightingale’ Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to America in 1850. The movie continues a form of hoodwinkery when it describes the impasse between Barnum and Lind. I don’t want to say too much, but records state that Lind earned $3 million for the tour; Barnum many millions more. The film contends something quite different.

No-one is going to evaluate The Greatest Showman against the criteria of a serious bio-pic. Musicals take short cuts and deal in broad spectacle. You want something from a musical that you don’t get from other forms: toe-tapping numbers, inventive choreography, delightful transitions and emotional peaks when you share a character’s triumph. People smile more in musicals than they ever do in real life (except maybe on a publicity tour): they transcend themselves through soulful voice and elegant movement. They do require a plot to match. The problem with The Greatest Showman, which covers Barnum’s life from his early years in the 1820s to (approximately) 1852 -although the circus he founded was actually in 1872- is that the point at which the film ends is not much further than the point of Barnum’s first triumph. In other words, it peaks too early.

There is something else that musicals do that The Greatest Showman doesn’t: that is, celebrate dance in expansive, occasionally incongruous settings. Everyone remembers the traffic jam dance number opening in La La Land not just because you don’t expect a song and dance set piece on a Los Angeles freeway, filmed in a single take to boot, but because the staging deals with reveals: people joining in, the band in the back of the truck, and a huge ensemble at the climax. The dance numbers in The Greatest Showman are contained in single locations, notably when Phineas and playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) dance in a bar, the former trying to persuade the latter to join him. It’s a throwback to old time musicals in which music rather than dance was the essential draw. However, it feels claustrophobic and tame. Incidentally, there is way too much drinking in the movie for ‘wholesome’ family entertainment and no-one gets drunk – not the kind of hoodwinking I like to see. The film is at its best in the early sections, when young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) secretly meets and then corresponds with his future wife, young Charity (Skylar Dunn) before he goes off to join the railroad. The song neatly telescopes the action in a way that it doesn’t later in the movie.

Older Charity (Michelle Williams) leaves the family home to be with Phineas in the hope that life with him will be exciting. The best bit of plotting has Barnum steal worthless deeds from his former employer for ships sunk and the bottom of the South China Sea to get collateral from the bank to open his first museum. As he discovers, people want to see real curiosities, not the stuffed ones that he presents. Phineas remembers the facially disfigured man who gave him an apple after he was caught stealing. He returns the favour by offering outcasts like him a job.

Once Barnum has established his show, proving his point by making his ‘freak show’ success with some licence, the film doesn’t have any interesting to go. If anything, Barnum comes across as exploitative, though his new family – the troupe of performers – doesn’t complain too much. Barnum might crave critical success – the film is punctuated by conversations with a disapproving journalist (Paul Sparks) – but we the audience don’t see the point.

The Barnum-Lind subplot feels like padding. It introduces uncomfortable elements – that Barnum is prepared to jettison his circus performer family for high society, not allowing them to join Jenny Lind’s first night party. The filmmakers can’t decide whether Barnum really falls for Lind in a small, ‘I’m-not-going-to-leave-my-wife-for-you’ way or whether it is just business. At any rate, the real PT Barnum was not a real looker but he did know how to whip up hype. The problem with the Lind subplot, quite apart from the misrepresentation of the facts, is that Barnum is unable to prove that he didn’t have an affair. Director Michael Gracey and his writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon get round this by giving Barnum something bigger to worry about them and then prove himself to his other family.

Fatally for a musical, the songs don’t linger in the memory. I found myself struggling to remember the lyrics, which lack the pinpoint accuracy of great musical numbers. Part of the problem is that the music doesn’t really depict with the emotional states of the characters with any conviction. Another subplot has Philip fall for the trapeze artist (Zendaya); her trapeze partner disapproves. Their love is frowned upon on racial grounds, but their song, ‘Rewrite the Stars’, doesn’t really tackle it in a vivid way. ‘It’s up to you/and it’s up to me/no one can say/what we get to be’ sung by Efron is followed by Zendaya’s response, ‘when you go outside/you’re gonna wake up and see/that it was hopeless after all’ concluding in with an optimistic challenge, ‘why don’t we rewrite the stars/changing the world to be ours’ that isn’t really borne out by the ensuing drama, especially since Efron’s character is fictional. Devotees of Barnum might want to know when his real-life business partner Bailey turns up (spoiler: he doesn’t).

With so many unresolved issues, and celebrating a publicist rather than talent, it is no wonder that The Greatest Showman, a passion project for its charismatic star Jackman, is underwhelming. The staging, within the confines of Barnum’s museum is lavish and the dialogue has some sparky one-liners (‘it takes a crowd to bring out a crowd’). For all the imbibing that goes on on-screen, The Greatest Showman seems spiritually empty.


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Larry Oliver
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