Review: The Greatest Showman (2017)

The Greatest Showman

Rating

Director

Michael Gracey

Screenplay

Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon

Length

1 h 45 min.

Starring

Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Daniel Everidge

MPAA Rating

PG for thematic elements including a brawl

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Soundtrack

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Review

Original big screen musicals are few and far between these days, but when done well, they excite the imagination like few other types of movies can. The Greatest Showman embodies much of what made musicals the dominant entertainment form of the 1960s.

Hugh Jackman takes on the role of P.T. Barnum, the man who revolutionized entertainment through his celebration of the bizarre and the macabre that eventually became the modern day circus. The real Barnum was exploitative, yet still quite progressive for his time period. However, that is not a subject the film concerns itself with, focusing instead on a celebration of diversity that a more modern version of Barnum might embrace.

Surrounded by a diverse cast of characters, The Greatest Showman explores prejudice and wealth inequality in mid-1800s America. While the events of Barnum’s life, from promoting Jenny Lind’s tour to the establishment of his circus took place over a 20 year-plus period, those events are compressed and intertwined in this production.

One of the biggest problems that stage-to-screen musical adaptations often suffer from is the inability to feel larger than the stage to which they are confined. That is not a common issue with musicals that originate on the big screen. The Greatest Showman, however, does have an issue there. Although there are a few scenes that take place in the exterior world, much of the production is stage-bound, locked inside various locales that create a modestly claustrophobic effect. That’s a unique problem to have, but even within those compressed spaces, the production oftentimes feels larger than life thanks to rousing production numbers punctuating the story.

The Greatest Showman is filled from stem to stern with boisterous music and joyous musical numbers, reminiscent of the heyday of big screen musicals in the 1960s. That the connective tissue in the narrative is circumstantial and thin is of minimal consequence when the exciting musical elements almost entirely make up for those shortcomings. The performances aren’t great, but they are so thoroughly entertaining that they can be forgiven for not being the absolute best that’s ever been.

Jackman is no stranger to the musical art form, having won a Tony award for The Boy from Oz, having hosted the Tony awards themselves four times, and having earned an Oscar nomination for Les Misérables. Jackman has shown great range at the movies, but he seems most at home in this genre. His P.T. Barnum is exuberant and bold, a casting coup for the production. With the numbers keyed to his own vocal range, they don’t force him to strain beyond his capabilities as was the case on a couple of songs in Les Miz.

Michelle Williams isn’t given enough to do, resulting in a performance that simply doesn’t resonate as it should. Faring better are Zendaya and Zac Efron as Anne Wheeler and Phillip Carlyle, she a circus performing “freak” and he the son of a wealthy society family. They modestly navigate the era’s bigotry with a light touch, but both, being from the Disney School of Musical Childhoods, perform admirably.

Keala Settle and Sam Humphrey as prominent performers Lettie “The Bearded Lady” Lutz and Tom Thumb aren’t given sufficient screen time, though Settle’s showstopping performance of “This is Me” is outstanding. Rebecca Ferguson also makes an impactful appearance as European songbird Jenny Lind. Though the tremendous vocal work on “Never Enough” is dubbed by Loren Allred, she gives it a forceful presentation in the film and makes it impossible to tell that she isn’t singing with her own voice.

As to “This Is Me,” it’s a wonderful track that celebrates diversity by saying we are unique and that’s OK. It’s this tune that gets to the central crux of the film, namely that you may not be what society deems normal, but that doesn’t matter. Live out loud and rejoice in that originality and that’s why the film resonates so well.

That’s one of the reasons why Barnum’s exploitative history felt so ill-fitting to this story. Barnum took advantage of society’s outcasts to make money for himself. However, reading up on his history, the facts suggest that he was fairly progressive for his era, fighting against slavery and for the rights of the very performers he was exploiting. The film also doesn’t have any concern for his political career. Taken out of historical context, his life might feel villainous, but one should always gauge history from a modern lens with an understanding of the filters of the era. While getting into the weeds on this figure would be better suited to a traditional biopic, it is still worth noting when examining the portrayal of an individual of Barnum’s celebrity and ilk.

The Greatest Showman is most forcefully concerned with presenting a harmonious worldview where being yourself is more important than fitting into society’s narrow definitions of normalcy. It is a film of our time, one that shows us what kind of joy and peace we could find if we would just come together and “From Now On” stop letting our selfishness control our lives and the lives of those around us. So, as the song “Come Alive” says: “go and ride your light, let it burn so bright.”

Oscar Prospects (Made prior to Oscar nominations announcements)

Probables: Original Song (“This Is Me”)
Potentials: Costume Design

Review Written

July 30, 2018

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