The Greatest Showman is one of the great movie conundrums of 2017. It was tepidly received my most critics and savaged by others. Yet, over time, it’s become an unqualified popular and financial success. While Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Black Panther have taken most of the media attention, The Greatest Showman has quietly made more than $344 million on an $84 million budget, more than $155 million of that domestically.
There is clearly something attractive here that the public likes and the critics don’t see or appreciate, which is beyond the interest and scope of this particular analysis. But it’s just one of those “disconnect” films that shed light on what the public wants to see that will likely be misinterpreted, judged, and wrongly imitated in an attempt to cash in on the film’s financial success. Sometimes this stuff is fun to watch!
I mention this because as the film began, my own heart was lightened as I thought it was going to be a brave, fun, joyous, and blissfully uncynical film that would be the equivalent of a more family-oriented La La Land. I was partially right: the cynicism is minimal, the movie is all heart (even when its heart isn’t necessarily in the right places), and the main players, with one great exception, do their own singing.
But the initial magic disappeared as the film devolved into less of a film than a series of musical numbers that are often clichéd in terms of subject, and which provide a lot of pizzazz with little feeling and with a strange tendency to avoid the most intriguing conflicts in the film. It is fun, to be sure, but only on the most superficial level. It stubbornly refuses to go deep, which may well be its most attractive factor (dare I say it?) in these troubled times.
The narrative is thin as a thread and serves primarily as a line on which to hang one musical number after another. The script is a barely-there gloss on P.T. Barnum’s life, with the creation of one fictional person and event after another in an attempt to create current relevancies and more “regular” movie situations. For example, there was no younger partner in love with a performer of a different race, nor did Barnum and Jenny Lind ever have any semblance of a romantic relationship. Also, while the casting of perennial favorite Hugh Jackman in the role of Barnum softens many edges and draws great empathy, Barnum was more of an exploiter than a modern-day tolerant equal opportunity employer.
The least interesting aspect of the film and its numbers is exemplified by “This is Me,” a variation of the Disney princess song of independence combined with what seems like a modern rallying cry, but one that even in modern times goes back to “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Much more interesting was the fake interracial romance, which was only celebrated musically in terms of its romance rather than with its righteous defiance of social convention—a lost musical opportunity. The best vocals of the film, however, are found in this number—“Rewrite the Stars” with Zac Efron and Zendaya. Even more interesting and therefore more of a disappointment because it wasn’t really explored was Barnum’s insecurity, rooted in his childhood years and exacerbated by snobbish and judgmental in-laws. Such a great and gritty topic for a number…oh, well.
Efron and Zendaya are both just fine in roles that don’t stretch either one of them, but Michelle Williams is basically wasted. She is one of our most talented actresses, and is capable of adding depth and multiple layers of meaning to her films most of the time, but the film doesn’t allow that kind of subtlety. She proves to film audiences that she can sing well enough, but her performance, as fine-tuned as it is, is as shallow as the film itself.
Then there is Rebecca Ferguson as opera legend Jenny Lind. Ferguson looks modern and of course nothing like Lind. This is to be expected, but then then there is her signature song, “Never Enough.” I get that the composers wanted a modern sound, but I was wondering why they couldn’t have at least given a nod to Lind’s more lyrical operatic sound. Instead of a “Swedish Nightingale”—Lind’s nickname—we have an American screech owl of a performance. It thought it sounded straight out of an audition for “American Idol”. I was wrong. It’s from a genuine finalist on “The Voice” and it’s wrong on so many levels.
This of course brings us to Jackman, the raison-d’être of the film, its unwavering center, and the force behind the film’s long road to realization. Jackman can sing and move, though I wouldn’t call him a dancer. His voice is just OK, but he knows how to act through song, and unlike the straining he had to do in Les Misérables, only one song near the end stretches his vocal abilities. He’s a natural leader on screen, and a vibrant personality that fits with the Barnum image. The non-musical scenes are solidly acted, but formulaic. A less charismatic actor would never have been able to hold this thin narrative and string of production numbers together; those profiting from the film owe Jackman a great deal here.
This is the first feature directed by special effects expert and music video director Michael Gracey. That explains the lack of narrative coherence and the focus on the splash of the musical numbers. Fortunately, the songs are by the same composing team that did La La Land, and they are, if not on the same level as those of that film, catchy, fun and infectious.
The Greatest Showman is clearly hitting a sweet spot with audiences. Perhaps it’s the central character/actor, perhaps it’s a group of singable and enjoyable songs. Perhaps it’s perfect counter-programming to the dark and intense films out there at the moment (take a look at the Best Film nominees, for example). Unfortunately, in terms of the history of film musicals, the film as a whole doesn’t just bring us back to pre-Oklahoma! days (I refer to the original Broadway version), it brings us back to musical review and vaudeville days when productions were discovering that a plot could help unite the numbers.
To reset once you’ve seen the film, go back and re-watch Singin’ in the Rain. Inside its brilliant satire, that’s a film with a real plot and some of the best musical numbers you’ll ever see. You’re welcome.