28 Dec REVIEW – ‘The Greatest Showman’
If you saw my incessant La La Land ramblings last year, you know musicals are my thing. I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea (especially the two people in my cinema who got up and left this film, about halfway through), but there’s always been something about a big, flashy musical that grabs me like few other genres of film. It’s why I hesitate to review a musical film because there can be a tendency to overlook the critical flaws that may cause others to groan in horror. But, as a serious film journalist, one needs to remain objective…and I’ll try my best.
After all is said and done, musicals are often crafted for pure cinematic entertainment. They’re here to dazzle and delight with glitz, glamour, and, of course, a whole swag of song-and-dance numbers. And that’s precisely what you’ll get with The Greatest Showman – a film that’s as big and extravagant as musicals get. It’s basically Moulin Rouge meets Chicago, with a detour into La La Land territory. If just the idea of that makes you feel nauseous, consider yourself warned now. This film is unashamedly bonkers, and perhaps it’s best to just smile and let it win you over.
Kicking things off in style, The Greatest Showman opens, as the best musicals do, with an elaborate and energetic opening number, “The Greatest Show,” featuring the star of the show and ringmaster, P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, the ultimate showman), and his carnival of bizarre and unique characters. Flashing back to the early 1800s, we meet Barnum as a young boy (Ellis Rubin), who works with his tailor father, as they tend to the clothing needs of the wealthy members in town. At the Hallett mansion, Barnum catches the eye of young Charity (Skylar Dunn), and despite her parents (Frederic Lehne and Kathryn Meisle) disapproval, the two quickly form a strong bond, as they swoon whilst singing the sappy duet “A Million Dreams.”
After years of staying connected by secret love letters, Barnum returns as an adult to the Hallet home to whisk Charity (now Michelle Williams) away, promising to give her the same lavish life she’s always known. It doesn’t quite work out that way, and the pair find themselves residing in a rather decapitated home with their two young daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). When Barnum loses his job at a shipping company, he sees this as his moment to create something unlike anything anyone has ever seen before – a circus filled with peculiar wonders and remarkable performers, and the birth of show business.
Putting the call out for those with a flair for the freakier side of life, Barnum quickly recruits a dwarf known as Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) who becomes a Napoleon-on-horseback act, a 500-pound man he dubs the Irish Giant (Radu Spinghel), an African-American brother-and-sister trapeze duo, Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and, the star of the show, Lettie Lutz (a sublime Keala Settle), aka the Bearded Lady.
Barnum also hires a partner, rich-boy playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), to give the show more of an authentic flow. Carlyle quickly falls for the dazzling Anne, much to the chagrin of his snobbish (and racist) parents. With Barnum’s brand-new building, branded the P.T. Barnum Circus, all spiffed and ready, the stage is set for the greatest show on earth. But, Barnum’s flair for the unusual is not sitting well with the locals, and the challenges to keep his dream alive are just beginning.
So, let’s get right to the most important element here – the musical numbers. With songs written by Oscar and Tony Award-winning (and you can likely add a Grammy to that soon) duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, aka the guys behind Best Picture wannabe La La Land and this season’s Broadway darling Dear Evan Hansen, you’re dealing with some of the best songwriters in the business right now. And, unsurprisingly, they deliver, for the most part.
The stand-out number, and the one rightly getting an awards season push, is the stirring and inspirational “This Is Me,” delivered by the powerhouse that is Keala Settle, who rightfully steals the film completely. Over the course of four minutes, Settle takes Lettie from shy and cowering mouse to fiery and confident diva, and it’s utterly glorious to behold. It’s up there with “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls, and the kind of transformative performance that is truly stirring and spectacular. The film’s stellar opening with “The Greatest Show” is outdone by its climactic “From Now On,” another wonderful highlight, with the ensemble cast of characters joining Barnum for one hell of a final performance. Try not to walk out of the theatre with the track’s anthemic cry “and we will come back home, and we will come back home, home again” stuck in your head.
Less effective are the film’s ballads, with all but one (the wistful “Tightrope,” performed exquisitely by Williams) falling rather flat. While Efron and Zendaya have wonderful chemistry together, their love duet “Rewrite the Stars” feels more like a leftover from Efron’s High School Musical days, and is completely out-of-place here. At one point in the story, Barnum meets a Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), hailed as the greatest soprano voice in the world. But her big number, “Never Enough,” is ultimately just a nice pop song which would feel more at home on Adele’s latest album. Hardly the stuff a great opera singer would deliver. It’s also painfully obvious Ferguson is lip-synching to someone else’s vocals (which would be The Voice contestant Loren Allred), and her miming skills are sub-par, at best. Why not hire an actress who can actually sing? There’s plenty of them out there. While it’s a vocally beautiful performance, again it doesn’t quite fit the film effectively.
But the real star here is naturally Jackman, who, as always, gives it his absolute all. We know he can do this kind of performance with his eyes closed. He’s got the Tony Award to prove it. Regardless, he once again cements his status as the best song-and-dance man in the business. His impressive vocal ability is matched equally by his phenomenal dance skills, and he turns on that Jackman charm that you cannot help but fall for. His Barnum is flawed but well-intentioned, and it’s hard not to cheer for the showman to succeed, especially in Jackman’s capable hands. With his Wolverine days behind him, perhaps we’re in for several more of these wondrous musical roles from Jackman. For all his action-hero prowess, this is where he really shines. If the musical roles keep coming for Jackman, you won’t hear any complaints from me.
Surrounding Jackman is a terrific supporting cast of wonderful characters and impressive performances. As Barnum’s beleaguered and steadfast wife, Williams is typically sublime and downright luminous. Her support of her husband is unwavering, and Williams gives great depth and emotion to her performance. The added bonus of her beautiful singing voice doesn’t hurt either. Efron is charismatic and charming, as always. And, as we’ve seen before, he’s every bit the classic song-and-dance man Jackman is. After his break-out roles in High School Musical and Hairspray, it’s immensely pleasing to see him return to the musical genre, and he’s just as comfortable here as Jackman.
First-time director Michael Gracey delivers an impressive debut, but his pacing is the film’s biggest flaw. He moves the flow of the piece with such a frenetic pace, it never gives the narrative enough time to fully form properly, and most of the characters are rather undeveloped. The timeline of the story jumps from plot point to plot point with a ridiculously hasty pace (Barnum goes from terribly poor to exceedingly wealthy extremely quickly), and it becomes hard to keep up, at times. But Gracey knows who to highlight at the right moments, and he clearly has a knack for shining the spotlight on just the right person at just the right time.
These are minor faults in a film that shines brighter from its deeply important message of acceptance, empowerment, and to never stop chasing your dreams. The so-called freaks of Barnum’s circus strive for a place in a world that doesn’t want them, and for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider, it’s the kind of cinema that will speak volumes to those yearning to learn how to love yourself for who you are. It’s a rose-coloured view, but it’s a hopeful message we could all use at this moment in history.
With an audacious grin, Barnum decrees “people come to my show for the pleasure of being hoodwinked,” and perhaps being hoodwinked by The Greatest Showman isn’t the worst thing in the world. It may just be the dazzling form of escapism the world needs right now. Give in to his impeccable showmanship, and run away to the circus with P.T. Barnum. You’ll be glad you did.