THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017)
Starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Daniel Everidge, Sam Humphrey, Shannon Holtzapffel, Paul Sparks, Gayle Rankin, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Skylar Dunn and Ellis Rubin.
Screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon.
Directed by Michael Gracey.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox. 105 minutes. Rated PG.
It’s rather sad that this musical bio-film of circus magnate PT Barnum is coming out a mere matter of months after his greatest contribution to popular culture – the long-beloved Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus – was closed down for good. (The film was started well before the announcement of the closure, but years of declining ticket sales made the move seem somewhat inevitable.)
The Greatest Showman takes on a truly larger than life man; a visionary, a businessman, a showman, an entertainer. PT Barnum believed in things being big, being spectacular, being wild and being memorable. His life was also like this. This musical take on the guy’s life (not to be mixed up with Barnum, the old Broadway musical on the same subject) is much like the circus – fun, a little strange, frenetic and full of razzle dazzle.
It was a smart move to sign on Hugh Jackman – he of the leading man good looks and veteran hoofer’s musical moves – to portray Barnum. Portraying the guy at several points in his life; from a dead-end apprentice, to struggling start-up, to mega-successful raconteur, Jackman doesn’t hit any false notes. He is enjoying returning to his musical roots (for the first time on film since playing Jean Valjean in Les Miserables five years ago).
As noted before, this film is not a version of the previous Barnum bio-musical, the songs here are all created specifically for the film.
Musically, the score is very catchy, though the music is mostly somewhat inappropriate to the film’s period. The songs have backbones of hip-hop, disco, rock, pop, Broadway show stoppers…, none of which would play in 19th century New York. Hell, the famous opera diva (Rebecca Ferguson) who is so vital to the film’s plot in the second half doesn’t even sing opera, just a middle-of-the-road show tune. It is a rather lovely song, but it most certainly is not what an opera singer would be performing.
The Greatest Showman’s sense of inclusion and its main lesson, to love one another and yourself – after all, many of the supporting characters are literally “freaks” – makes the movie both timely and timeless. Many of the circus act supporting characters are extremely talented – check out the voice on the bearded lady – and they impart a message of tolerance and understanding.
The Greatest Showman also takes a hard look at class structures of the day (and today, for that matter). The nouveau riche Barnum both despised and envied the old-money society squares, craving their acceptance at the same time as he is thumbing his nose at their rigidness.
The best inroads he makes into the high society is through Phillip Carlyle (played by Zac Efron, who shares both Jackman’s handsomeness and hoofer qualities), a local theater impresario and gadfly who agrees to join up with Barnum to run the circus. Carlyle essentially gets cast out of the society pages, both for working in “show business” and falling for a lovely trapeze artist Zendaya who is black, an absolute scandal in those days.
Barnum also tries to court high culture by sponsoring the first tour of opera diva Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), though as he starts to find the approval he craves he starts to forget about where he came from. This is a nearly fatal flaw, nearly destroying all he has worked for.
Honestly, PT Barnum’s life and career (or careers, he was also a writer and a politician) were much more complicated and nuanced than this film gives any credit to. But that’s okay. It’s a musical, not a documentary. No one really expects a cold, hard look at the guy.
In a way that PT Barnum would probably appreciate, the whole sprawling mess and majesty of his life has been boiled down to a razzle-dazzle three-ring spectacular, with jugglers, clowns, animals, dancing, singing and the daring young girl on the flying trapeze.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 20, 2017.