December 15, 2017
December ushers in two types of films: the prestige pictures (The Post, The Disaster Artist) and the family-friendly pictures (Pitch Perfect 3, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). Then there’s The Greatest Showman, a film that offers an anthem-infused look into the life of the infamous P.T. Barnum and one that perfectly straddles the line between period drama and affable spectacle. Director Michael Gracey’s impressive debut instills the typical biopic narrative with the rhythm and beauty of musical theater. The Greatest Showman is a cinematic experience that’s perfectly emblematic of the spirit of Barnum.
This is the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman), born a tailor’s son, whose large dreams of a world filled of incredible wonders require a herculean effort to realize, no thanks to his low-born station. Undeterred, Barnum seeks any means he can to rise above – stealing, selling newspapers, and joining the railroad – until he raises enough funds to, first, marry his childhood love Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), and then move to New York City to live their dreams. Despite the a slew of realities holding him back, his persistence leads him to open a museum of oddities and curiosities – the first step to creating the world-renowned extravaganza that toured the world for nearly two centuries.
Showman succeeds on multiple levels. Costume design work by Ellen Mirojnick (Logan Lucky) draws the eye to each character’s immaculate attire. The costumes feel almost too clean and elegant given the time period and underlying narratives of racial and class tension, yet it’s forgivable as the pop of the color enhances the Broadway-esque feel of Seamus McGarvey’s (Nocturnal Animals) gorgeous cinematography. The costumes and cinematography work in concert with Gracey’s background in visual effects to help Showman transcend its biopic origins and become something more fantastical. This is what you should be aiming for if you’re making a Barnum biopic.
Showman is truly an ensemble piece where each song is elevated by the performances and vice versa. Leading the troupe is Jackman, a proven versatile performer in a role that has has already earned him a Golden Globe nomination. As his wife, Williams holds her own, matching Jackson step for step and note for note. Her performance begs the question of when she may get the chance to sing on stage. Zac Efron appears as socialite Phillip Carlyle, a man with too much money and a great deal of connections, who serves as the audience’s social proxy as the narrative dips into the tensions of the era. Carlyle gives no quarter with Jackman’s Barnum – highlighted in the rather fun song “The Other Side” – as they work out their impending partnership. Where Barnum has Charity, Efron’s Carlyle has Anne Wheeler, an aerialist (Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Zendaya) who is more comfortable flying through the air than she is walking the streets as a black woman in 1800s New York. There are times when the Anne/Carlyle narrative feels forced as the story moves away from Barnum; yet their chemistry together is undeniable, and song “Rewrite the Stars” made me long for more.
Each song performed in Showman feels meticulously designed to be a standout single, their anthemic nature makes them irresistible. Whether the wholesome and hopeful “A Million Dreams” sung by Ziv Zaifman, Jackman, and Williams – embodying the desires of Barnum to rise above his lowly station – or “The Other Side” sung by Jackman and Efron, each song is suffused with ambition, longing, and desire. The standout track is “This is Me” sung by Keala Settle and The Greatest Showman Ensemble, a song that’s as heart-aching as it is inspirational for not only its theme of self-acceptance and self-worth, but whose messages resonates in today’s political climate of divisiveness. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Academy Awards winners for 2016’s La La Land, have outdone themselves and may just find themselves in the running again this year.
In watching a film like The Greatest Showman you’re aware that though the characters are real, the events we’re watching are adjusted for dramatic impact. With the flair of musical theater, Showman is a show, a display, a charade. This only becomes detrimental to the experience when you notice how quickly the narrative moves from one plot point to another without taking time to contemplate or examine what’s occurred or relying heavily on the songs to convey meaning to the events unfolding before us. In this way, Showman suffers by not taking into consideration the consequences of the story, instead favoring the bright lights and big dreams over the crushing reality that likely occurred. Still, this fault doesn’t stop Showman from being exceptionally engaging, earnest, and heartfelt.
The Greatest Showman can be summed up in the words of Jackman’s Barnum: “Men suffer for imagining too little, not too much.” Even if the story itself is a touch forgettable, Showman is an undeniable spectacle with a infectious soundtrack, a movie that dazzles and delights. So come one, come all – buy your tickets and see the birth of the Greatest Show on Earth.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5.
Check out The Greatest Showman soundtrack: