Entertainment » Movies

The Greatest Showman

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Dec 20, 2017
Hugh Jackman stars in 'The Greatest Showman'
Hugh Jackman stars in 'The Greatest Showman'  

Here's what you need to now going in to "The Greatest Showman," the big-budget musical starring Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams: It's not a movie version of "Barnum," the Broadway musical. It's a completely new work, with original songs by "La La Land" lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It's a period piece, complete with glorious costumes, but the songs are modern pop of an anthemic stripe.

With your expectations thus adjusted, you are free to settle in and enjoy a visually spectacular and -- for LGBT audiences especially -- resonant movie that celebrates all the classic virtues: Romantic love, marital fidelity, the pursuit of dreams, and the deeper-than-the-skin beauty of each individual (except, of course, for the nasty bigots that crowd the frame, dressed in grungy work clothes and hurling epithets like "Freak!").

The film touches on the early life of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the son of a tailor who serviced wealthy people but was never accorded their respect. Like father, like son: Young Phineas is similarly treated with dismissive (and sometimes brutal) disrespect, not least by the father of Charity, the highborn girl with whom he's in love.

Charity and Phineas keep in touch through letters for years while Charity is in finishing school; eventually, the two grown up, with Jackman and Williams playing them, and Phineas -- now going by his initials, P.T. -- labors away as a clerk until, frustrated by the vagaries of working for little money and no security, Barnum decides to chase his dreams and become an entertainer.

His drive and imagination (plus a little legerdemain involving a fleet of sunken ships, which he uses as collateral to obtain a loan) help Barnum succeed in launching his first business project, a museum of oddities that fails to draw any crowds. That's when Barnum is inspired to follow a hunch: People like to stare at people they regard as deformed, "exotic," or otherwise physically different from themselves. Determined to give the people a spectacle, he assembles a crew of performers with unusual characteristics -- everything from a bearded lady (Keala Settle, who gets to deliver "This Is Me," one of the film's most bravura numbers) to a man of tiny stature to... well, a troupe of extraordinarily talented acrobats, contortionists, dancers, and trapeze artists, including the beautiful Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and her brother W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

Seeking respectability and the acceptance of the well-heeled class, Barnum courts theater producer Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a wayward son of socially prominent parents. It takes some doing to convince Carlyle to sign on as a partner -- a whole song and dance, literally, which unfolds in a bar to the strains of "The Other Side," one of the film's more Broadway-sounding tunes -- but once he's part of the team and meets Anne, Carlisle is hooked. The problem? This is the mid-1800s, and Anne is African-American. In one of the film's most cutting moments, Carlisle's mother, shocked to see her son out on the town with Anne, accuses him of dating "the help." Ouch, and grrr.

But prejudice is part and parcel of the film; it's the great barrier that stands between Barnum and his people, and their fulfillment as show business pros and human beings. For all the crowds that pack Barnum's shows -- and of course they pack the place; he puts on Cirque du Soleil-level entertainments -- there are equally large and energetic mobs that gather to yell threats and insults at those they hate and loathe simply of being different. (These days they'd be neo-Nazis or white nationalists -- or the crop of judicial nominees that our current president has presented to a rubber stamp-wielding senate -- but given the time frame of this story, they seem more like peasants unsure of exactly where to obtain either pitchforks or torches.)

The film follows the general outlines of Barnum's biography, though not without considerable polishing, revision of chronology and biographical facts, and loads of stylistic anachronisms, the most overt of which take the form of the film's circus acts and, even more so, the songs. The slight catch and tinge of rust in Zac Efron's voice as he performs the duet "Rewrite the Stars" with Zendaya is most assuredly an artifact of 21st Century sensibilities. Another so-very-contemporary song is "Never Enough," the oddly Top 40-ish ballad sung by "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), whose high-class, hugely successful American tour Barnum puts together and finances. (Loren Allred voice doubles for Ferguson's singing parts.) The song, as you might expect, carries numerous shades pf meaning, not least a whiff of man-eating appetite or, at the very least, an affinity for boyish dreamers who look like High Jackman. (Who can't identify?)

Williams is underserved by the film, though she's fantastic in all her scenes -- and in her big number, "Tightrope" -- and the suggestion of Lind as a temptress feels forced. This otherwise glossy, family-friendly fairy tale unfairly casts Lind as a would-be home wrecker, a plot choice that opens the way to a tidy resolution, but the way the film is structured leaves you feeling like the best might have been yet to come. Then again, as Barnum himself would have advised -- and for all I know, he did -- the trick to showbiz is to leave 'em wanting more.

That's a trick the movie succeeds in pulling off, thanks in part to the galloping final number, "From Now On," which is easily the best on the soundtrack. More than a few of the songs have a paint-by-number feel about them, but the finale makes up for it; plus, there's so much vibrancy and vitality to the production -- including some brilliant filmmaking, athletically inventive choreography, and eye-candy production design -- that the not-quite-two-hour running time flies by. The movie has the punch of a sugar rush, but mysteriously leaves you without a hangover. It's a pure pleasure - exactly the sort of entertainment Barnum, when chiding a dour theater critic (Paul Sparks), defends as a worthy offering in and of itself.

Here's the long and short of it: If you gave up on Jackman as a musical star after the horrible misjudged, though ambitious, film version of "Les Miserables," give him another chance. After all, America is the land of second acts.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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