Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya. Directed by: Michael Gracey.
It’s always the way. Boxing Day rolls about, the excitement and excess is gone and you realise, you’ve only gone and left one last present under the tree, unwrap it and find it’s something you never knew you wanted. A musical extravaganza starring hugh jackman and some damn catchy songs.
The Greatest Showman is the story, very loosely based on the life, of P.T. Barnum, who first opened a museum of curiosities before turning it into a full-blown circus, filled with the most strange and different people he can find. Fairly soon, his ego started to get out of control.
Michael Gracey had never directed a film before this. It’s a ballsy move for a first-timer, but then he did make a Lipton Ice Tea advert with Hugh Jackman which involved big dance numbers, so the idea of a big circus show is there in principle. Gracey might not be used to the bigger musical numbers, but he sure applies himself to this old-fashioned story. The trouble is, sometimes the focus isn’t where it needs to be.
Luckily for Gracey he’s surrounded himself with clever people. Jackman, who has had a passion for this project since god knows when, pours every ounce of himself into the role. His singing is bigger than in Les Miserables, even if the role is a little easier on the old emotional barometer, but in him the character of P.T. Barnum is more like a cousin to his The Prestige character Robert Angier, a showman with an ego that keeps growing.
The story arc for Barnum is something Jackman can make easy work of, the easy-to-side-with wide-eyed optimism and dreams that get an audience on board, the manic “it’ll work” attitude through trouble, followed by the triumphant joy, the growing ego, the arrogance, the cruelty and finally the understanding. It’s a fairly well-worn plot line but in the hands of a seasoned pro like Jackman, it’s one you can cheer, cry, sneer and finally cheer at again.
It also helps that Gracey has filled his film with confident players. Michelle Williams does as best she can with the fairly thin and boring role of Barnum’s wife; from rich to poor, the character appears to be the classic woman who falls for a dreamer but reality ends it, and when that doesn’t happen it comes as something of a shock. Moreover, as the plot progresses Williams screen time becomes less and less, and therefore the hard work at the beginning begins to mean nothing.
Zac Efron and Zendaya get the juiciest subplots, as the moneyman who backs the mad idea of the circus and comes to love the freedom it affords him, and the acrobat who along with her siblings discover that not everyone is closed minded. Their love story proves the most rewarding, and the musical duet between them ‘Rewrite the Stars’ is the sort of two-person visual musical treat that melts the heart and brings a smile to the face.
But, much like the main character, the film is very concerned (and then a little less so) with the main stars of the show. In particular, Keala Settle as the bearded lady Lettie Lutz, the one with the most attitude and when it counts, leads the feel good song “This is Me”, the song destined to become everyone’s favourite. Settle brings a warmth and a humour to the role, and it’s hard not to fall head over heals in love with her the minute she’s introduced and by the end rises to the top of the films best.
All in all, the film only falls apart on two fronts. The first is the subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson (still so bland) as an opera singer who could bring Barnum into the big leagues. The subplot goes nowhere, with little in the way of decent songs or motivation and only works to create scandal and a moment of sorrow. The other is the film’s failure to properly explore the prejudice shown to the stars. The racist elements work well and one use of the word ‘Spook’ is particularly hard going, but the riot and protests are too soft and the film isn’t strong enough to properly portray what is going on.
The Greatest Showman is a big loving homage to old school musicals, to putting on a show and doing the absolute best. Come this awards season it may still be the best contender in the musical film category. It is flawed, and is playing as best it can, but when it comes down to it, the film will be a crowd pleaser for those who love films that aren’t ashamed to be musicals. Not quite the Greatest Show on earth, but it’s bloody good fun.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.