REVIEW: The Greatest Showman (2017)

Theatrical Release Poster – 20th Century Fox

The following is a review of The Greatest Showman — Directed by Michael Gracey.

It’s the end of the year, so let’s give it a go with a Christmas analogy. Imagine you’re about to open this great, big present covered with gorgeous wrapping paper. But as you rip off the wrapping paper, and open the box that contains your gift, you start to sense the disappointment as the great, big gift is much smaller than the box and the wrapping paper made it seem.

What did you get? Oh, it’s this neat little plaque with some inspirational quote on it. It’s about as generic as possible. That’s The Greatest Showman. A good-hearted hoodwink so disappointing that you question why you ever got excited at all.

First-time director Michael Gracey’s musical The Greatest Showman tells a ‘version’ of P. T. Barnum’s life. It is a traditional rags to riches musical with a wonderful cast featuring Hugh Jackman as the eponymous ‘greatest showman,’ P. T. Barnum; Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind; Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum; and Zac Efron as a composite character, a partner and protégé to Barnum.

There actually was a time when I thought this movie might be my favorite of the year. Hugh Jackman in a potentially rich and complex role, and Zac Efron back in a musical — oh and it doesn’t hurt that one of the most underappreciated Oscar-caliber actresses out there — Michelle Williams — was in it. But this is a huge disappointment, complete with a rushed opening act. All show, no substance. Trickery, cliches, and wonder in place of a strong narrative and solid characters. Jackman actually is quite good here, but his character’s circus ‘freaks’ deserve more than cardboard-thin characters.

I remember once having an argument with a friend of mine about musicals. She was of the opinion that a musical is as good as its songs are catchy. And if you only watch musicals for the songs, then you may find enjoyment from The Greatest Showman after all.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose musical work include the Tony-award winning musical Dear Evan Hansen and Damien Chazelle’s movie musical masterpiece La La Land, worked on the music for The Greatest Showman, but you almost can’t tell. It’s a completely different scale of musical numbers — they are giant pop anthems for the disenfranchised — which doesn’t mean they are automatically good, per se. But I did think that many of these musical numbers are very entertaining.

Finally, there is, of course, the issue of the film being a disingenuous account of P. T. Barnum’s career and life. All films obviously require some degree of suspension of disbelief, and musicals even more so, but, to me, The Greatest Showman came across as a mendacious apologia. To me, it almost felt like the studio was force-feeding you a spoonful of sugar to make the film go down well. Or perhaps I am being too harsh on the film. The sugar — the musical numbers — is appetizing, though, so no one can really blame you if you enjoy the film.

All things considered, I think The Greatest Showman is a perfectly well-meaning musical, even though it is historically inaccurate. I’d even say that the wonderful music accompanying the film and Jackman’s performance almost salvage the production. But it is the musical genre equivalent of the Transformers-films. It isn’t very good, it isn’t very memorable, but it is watchable. It is a turn-your-brain-off picture for the musical genre, and that will be enough for some. However, if you want authenticity, then you’d be better off reading P. T. Barnum’s wikipedia page with Pasek and Paul’s music playing in the background. Although that may be too distracting.

6 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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