The Greatest Showman is a musical biopic of (showman/businessman) P.T.Barnum’s life that’s not the same as the already existing stage musical biopic ‘Barnum’. Confusing, right? This incarnation stars Hugh Jackman in the title role, features lyrics by Oscar & Tony-winning duo Pasek and Paul and sees Australian filmmaker Michael Gracey make his directorial debut.
I really wanted to love this film. Its trailer (featuring the rapturous number ‘This is Me’) does a dang good job of selling it as an uplifting, moving piece with an inclusive message to pinch at your emotions; instead, I found it to be a largely superficial.
My main criticism of The Greatest Showman lies in its structure. It flys along at a rapid pace, rarely pausing to add nuance or build character. Within the space of a single song Barnum goes from poor child to a recently laid-off adult with a wife and two kids. By the very next song his circus is up and running, complete with its full set of ‘misfits’ who are bundled together as a group throughout the piece. It never gives time to these individuals whose stories could have enhanced the film’s moral message. Instead, they’re left as a collective – defined by their aesthetics.
I get the impression that this is a depiction of Barnum’s life with very rounded edges. Every plot point has a sickly sweet, rapid resolution that leaves no time for tension to build. When Barnum strays from the life he’s built to go on tour with Jenny Lind (an opera singer he’s brought over to the US), all blame for any sense of an affair is passed to her. For all his wrong-doings Barnum comes out the other end as a glimmering saint who’s forgiven by everyone (for everything) all too easily. The film also doesn’t have the guts to directly address the racial issues that Zendaya’s character (Anne – a trapeze artist) faces. Sure it hints, but it rapidly backs away from any sort of grit to the extent that the kid sat behind me didn’t understand what was ‘wrong’ with her character.
‘Joyous family musical’ is definitely what this film strives for. It’s true, Hugh Jackman does put in a competent performance (though I’ve always found his diction when singing slightly odd); Zac Effron & Zendaya form an appealing couple and Michelle Williams is her flawless self (though grossly underutilised) as Barnum’s agreeable wife. The music is uplifting but very commercial, generic and repetitive in tone. The sort of music that shoves itself into your psyche with a force that says ‘don’t you dare not enjoy this’. Some of it is a hit. ‘This is Me’, a stirring number led by Broadway vet Keala Seattle, is a definite highlight and ‘Rewrite the Stars’ that sees Zac Effron & Zendaya’s characters flying about on ropes (as he tries to convince her they can be together) is a definite earworm. But others (such as ‘The Other Side’ , a wierd testosterone filled number featuring Effron and Jackman singing it out in a bar) missed the mark for me.
I did enjoy Michael Gracey’s direction of most of the musical numbers. He often weaves the songs in and out of the spoken narrative, sometimes they act as a soundtrack while flowing montages forward the plot. Thank goodness for the montages – the miming in this film is somewhat brutal, creating a huge disconnect between the characters’ emotions and their voices. This is all too apparent when Rebecca Ferguson performs as the opera singer Jenny Lind – her singing voice is actually dubbed (and her big number not operatic in the slightest …).
I like some aspects of The Greatest Showman: the cinematography, some of the music & direction; but as it glosses its way over Barnum’s life it fails to evoke much emotion. Joyous music is superficial if you simply don’t care about the characters. Overall, I give The Greatest Showman a rating of 3/5.