The Greatest Showman
By: Arlene Allen
It’s a sad commentary on modern society that we have only one musical motional picture released a year and usually only at holiday time. This year we have The Greatest Showman, a film by Michael Gracey (former visual effects master turned director) with a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land infamy. Starring the multi-talented Hugh Jackman as circus visionary P.T. Barnum and including a star-studded ensemble cast, this was one of the films I was highly anticipating this holiday season.
Unfortunately, like the circus, after the lights go down and the glitter fades there’s just not that much here. The film is loosely (and when I say loosely, I mean as loose as a muumuu on a size two model) based on the life of Barnum from his early days as a lowly tailor’s son to a successful circus entrepreneur. This has never been billed as a bio pic, though, which is a good thing, but the problem is that most of the storyline (what there is of one) doesn’t even make cohesive sense.
His courtship and romance with his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) is told in a lovely song montage, as is their early life with their two children Helen (Cameron Seely) and Caroline (Austyn Johnson). Barnum comes up for his idea of his museum of curiosities and uses worthless shipping bonds as collateral for the project (this never occurred in real life. Barnum was a humbug but not a thief). The museum is full of fake curiosities and wax figures until Barnum conceives of his “oddities show” starring Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), the bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), the Wheeler brother and sister trapeze act (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Zendaya) and various others. Of course, their hiring is done with another musical montage.
Barnum convinces young socialite Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron, who is almost the song and dance man Jackman is) to buck the stuffy New York upper crust and join him in his venture (mainly because Carlyle is smitten with Ann Wheeler, a doubly forbidden love). The two begin making what seems to be a good deal of money, hand over fist, and the entire circus is invited to London to perform before Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin). This is where Barnum meets “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, although sung by Loren Allred). Unfortunately for Barnum, what seems to be a great opportunity ends up in a disaster that nearly ruins everyone’s life and almost destroys everything he had worked so hard to build.
Did this film have the potential to be outstanding? It certainly did, if only all of the above plot points had been fully fleshed out. I did leave out quite a few details, because spoilers, but the story does not flow the way it sounds as described above and is full of rather inexplicable plot holes, such as Barnum shutting out the oddities he claims to love of a very important event. Although, that action does lead to one of the best of the show-stopping numbers of the movie, “This Is Me,” led by star Settle. The song is already nominated for a Golden Globe.
Of course, I’m sure few people will scrutinize the plot because they’re going for the music, the songs, the dancing, the spectacle and that The Greatest Showman delivers in spades. I’ve already mentioned “This Is Me,” but Jenny Lind’s number (sung by Loren Allred) “Never Enough” will simply take your breath away. It’s so stunning! Also worth noting, Zac Efron and Zendaya are poignant and heart-string tugging during the aerobatic love duet “Rewrite The Stars.” And, of course, finale number “The Greatest Show” will have you very nearly out of your seat cheering.
The circus colors are stunning. The acrobatics and aerobatics are a treat for the eyes. Is it a coincidence that this film releases just six months after the circus closed for good after 176 years of continuous operation? It’s certainly a reminder of a time when people didn’t have entertainment at their fingertips, but I won’t wax nostalgic here, even though the film does have touches of it throughout the film. Zendaya is poetry in motion as aerial artist Ann Wheeler. The supporting cast of oddities are fantastic and if you are a history and/or circus buff, you will recognize various turn of the century celebrities such as Chang and Eng. Do I even need to tell you that Hugh Jackman himself is very nearly perfection as Barnum?
While the trailers have shown you everything you need to know about the film plot wise, if it’s the music and spectacle and another masterful performance by Jackman you’re after, you certainly won’t be disappointed.