By: BabyRuth (Four Beers) –
After reportedly being in the works since 2009, Hugh Jackman’s passion project, a musical about the life of P.T. Barnum, is finally seeing the light of day over the 2017 holiday season. 2017 also happened to be the year that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed down for good after declining sales and allegations of animal abuse.
But we are going to put all that aside along with the fact that P.T. Barnum really wasn’t such a great guy (have fun with Google!) and attempt to enjoy The Greatest Showman for what it is: a big, glitzy, cheeseball musical that’s fun for the whole family!
But is it?
Jackman stars as Phineas Taylor Barnum, the son of a poor tailor who longs to give his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) the life she is accustomed to, having been born into high-society wealth. Her father never accepts him, which only fuels Barnum’s ambition.
After losing his job, Barnum finagles his way into a loan to build a museum of oddities. Unfortunately for him, it isn’t very lucrative. That is until his daughter points out that living things are more interesting then dead ones which gives him an idea. He quickly puts together a show of peculiar and formerly shunned people including a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a 25-inch tall man (Sam Humphrey), and various other “freaks.” Some may call it exploitation, Barnum (and this movie) calls it empowerment.
Shoutout to Lady Gaga and OG Teen Wolf!
The newly named “circus” is a success. But despite being richer than he ever dreamed, it is not enough for Barnum as he becomes more and more obsessed with fitting into the Manhattan society that still continues to reject him. He sees an opportunity in an opera star named Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), someone who is not a freak and whose talent is “real” (which… everyone in his circus can sing and dance exceptionally well, and two are even skilled trapeze artists, but okay, whatever). He begins to turn his back on everyone who was there for him from the beginning, including his very own family. Will he learn that friendship and love is more important than money and a favorable review in the newspaper?
I’ll give you one guess.
I’m a huge fan of musicals – movie musicals, Broadway musicals, off-Broadway, community theater, musical episodes of television shows… it doesn’t matter. Give me jazz hands, group choreography, and a bombastic key change and I’m a happy camper. When I saw The Greatest Showman’s live preview performance during last week’s A Christmas Story Live (which, yes, I watched that too) I was very excited and had high hopes (though maybe that’s because in comparison to A Christmas Story Live, it looked amazing.)
Performance-wise, the film delivers. Director Michael Gracey’s (this is his feature film directorial debut) music video experience is evident in the many energetic musical sequences, which are entertaining and whizz by faster than you can say Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann was undoubtedly an influence here). The choreography is imaginative and props are creatively incorporated. (Though, there is no way a person can drink like 20 shots and dance as well as Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron do in their barroom duet –even though they may think they can at the time)
Jackman is every bit as charismatic and lovable as one would expect, clearly reveling in finally realizing his dream of bringing this project to fruition. It’s almost enough to make the viewer buy into believing the film’s white-washed version of Barnum.
The supporting cast are all-in as well and everyone emotes, stomps, and poses accordingly.
The best parts of the film focus on the romance between Barnum’s business partner Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Their chemistry is one of the few things in the film that feels authentic and both are insanely talented performers. Every moment the two on are on-screen together is electric.
A much sexier use of ropes than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is missing, but there’s an emptiness under all the gloss and pizzazz. It all feels very manufactured and artificial, hitting each figurative and literal beat predictably. Every big musical number is supposed to be a climactic payoff to the drama that precedes it, but it never feels earned.
While the musical setpieces are quite entertaining and inventively choreographed, the music itself isn’t very memorable, which is not good in a musical. I had the same issue with La La Land (for which this film’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul also composed the music). It’s fine in the moment, but impossible to recall enough to be able to hum a single bar from any of the film’s songs even a minute after they end. And while I had no problem with the use of the current-sounding pop music, the songs are so over-produced that it takes the viewer out of the moment, constantly reminding the audience they are watching actors lip sync on a soundstage. It’s particularly distracting during the otherwise wonderful trapeze duet between Efron and Zendaya- I mean, who sings that perfectly while flipping through the air at death-defying heights (well, besides Pink)?
Then there’s the introduction of “The Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, the best opera singer in the entire world, according to the movie. When her big moment comes to perform, she sings… not opera. I know, I know, I just said I didn’t have a problem with the use of modern music, but in this one instance I did. Maybe don’t repeatedly refer to her as an opera singer if she’s only going to belt out a song that sounds like something the winner would sing on the finale of American Idol?
Speaking of Lind, I was not familiar with her before this film. I’m assuming the majority of audiences who go to see The Greatest Showman were not either. I read up a little on her and it turns out she was a pretty awesome person. In reality, she only agreed to embark on the tour with Barnum because of the opportunity to make a shit-ton of money for charity. She severed ties with him because they disagreed over money and Barnum’s exploitative marketing techniques, eventually continuing the tour on her own. But in the film, she is used as nothing more than a source of conflict for Barnum, threatening to lure him into leaving his band of freaks, as well as his wife. When he turns down her advances, she vengefully attempts to ruin his business and marriage. So that’s what the audience takes away from her character. And none of it is true.
It’s one thing to fictionalize real people and situations for the sake of storytelling, it’s a whole other thing to villainize them (while making someone who was not a good person look like the hero, no less).
Like Lind, the performers in Barnum’s troupe are not much more than pawns in Barnum’s story, there to collectively cheer him on or teach him a lesson about being a better person. It would have been nice to learn a little more about them. Especially since one of the main themes of the film is their supposed empowerment.
Not the worst but certainly not the greatest, Showman is a mostly-entertaining watch and a nice little escape from the craziness of the holiday season. Just don’t expect much substance. Or facts. Or memorable songs.
The Greatest Showman (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever anyone yells “FREAKS!”
Take a Drink: whenever Barnum stares in awe at a performer
Take a Drink: stomp-dancing
Take a Drink: whenever Michelle Williams’ character is sad
Take a Drink: when they do that thing where the crowd is cheering but there is no sound. And then the sound comes in and it’s roaring applause (this happens quite a bit in this movie)
Take a Drink: whenever a character does (small sips during the number with Jackman and Efron)
Take a Drink: for every CGI animal not harmed in the making of this film (unlike the real ones in the Ringling Bros. circus)
Do a Shot: for every final pose at the end of a big number