The Greatest Showman
Dir. Michael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson
Coming into The Greatest Showman I was hoping to be charmed. I was a huge fan of La La Land, and with the lyricists behind that hit writing the original songs for this musical, I was hoping to be won over. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, though I’ve seen my fair share, but I’m open minded to them. I did have my concerns though. P.T. Barnum, whilst a fascinating subject, has been accused of everything from animal abuse to racism, and I was concerned about how this film would deal with those issues. My concerns were realised when the film didn’t even try. It’s a tried and tested formulaic musical. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Lamest Showman.
The Greatest Showman is the story of P.T. Barnum. The man who invented show business. The film portrays him as a man who came from nothing, and with nothing but his own imagination and will power, turned himself into one of the most famous and successful men in America. He did this by starting a museum of wax works which soon turned into a circus of odd live acts, everything from trapeze artists to giants, to bearded ladies. The circus works, and we are shown that Barnum’s real flare lies in marketing and selling his visions to the audience. The success of the circus isn’t enough for Barnum, as he wants the respect of the upper class. This comes in the form of Rebecca Ferguson’s Jenny Lind, a European opera singer who Barnum takes on a world tour. This quest to better himself soon has him losing sight of what’s really important, his wife, played by Michelle Williams, and his daughters.
If anything works in The Greatest Showman it’s the performances. Hugh Jackman is undeniably charismatic as P.T. Barnum, finally being able to fully express himself as a song and dance man. This version of Barnum is a good fit for Jackman, and plays to all his strengths. It’s also nice to see Zac Efron back doing what he does best, after years of trying to break free of the High School Musical tag, he fully embraces that part of his talents here as young socialite who falls in with Barnum, and falls in love with Zendaya’s trapeze artist, even though his parents disapprove because of the colour of her skin. Zendaya as well registers strongly, as she transitions from Disney channel star to movie star.
If the performances are strong, it’s the rest of the film that falls down. It’s worrying that each time the film segues into song you feel your whole body squirm with how uncomfortable it feels. It’s cheesy, and not in a knowing way. This is a film which plays to conventions, and never once subverts them. A film in which a characters lowest moment
is turned into a triumph of character within the space of one song. The songs themselves aren’t great either, apart from “This Is Me” none of them really register, and won’t stick around in your head for long. There’s also a lack of characterisation. Great actresses like Michelle Williams and Rebecca Ferguson are left with nothing to do.
If the film doesn’t address the controversy of Barnum’s life, it presents the movie as a fantasy version. Which also comes in handy when explaining the cheap looking special effects. The biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t practice what it preaches. Barnum is celebrated for treating those with oddities as equals, but the film itself never once does this. When we are introduced to the bearded lady, and yes, that’s the only way to describe her because she isn’t given much more characterisation, she’s hidden behind a sheet, and it’s supposed to be a shock when we, the audience, see her. The people in the circus are never shown as more than other. It’s a huge problem. It’s one thing for the film to overlook the exploitation of these people, but it’s another thing for it to exploit the idea of people with differences in exactly the same way.
If La La Land was the re-birth of the musical film, then The Greatest Showman is the death knell of the traditional musical. It’s a film which is never as bold or as unconventional as its protagonist. It’s predicable at every step. It’s schmaltzy and saccharine. It’s all show, but no substance.