I’ll admit: I’ve been conditioned to assume that if a studio doesn’t screen its film in time for certain groups’ awards consideration, there’s probably a reason for that. As a result, I walked into the musical The Greatest Showman a little leery, but still pretty hopeful. Many of the principal cast members are terrific singers, the two primary songwriters both won Oscars earlier this year for their songs in La La Land, and I happen to love the subject matter—the man who effectively invented modern show business, P.T. Barnum (played with the necessary pizzazz by Hugh Jackman).
The film only just skims the surface of Barnum’s life and accomplishments, but it’s the type of on-the-surface treatment that I’m guessing might inspire a few curious types to dig deeper after the movie has ended. Although it’s a highlights reel, it by no means glosses over the less appealing aspects of Barnum’s life—the way he put career before family; his passionate pursuit of fame and fortune, driven by a need to make the rich see him as an equal, especially his in-laws; and the way he treated his talent like property rather than equals in the outcast world.
In 1829, Barnum married Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), who came from a family far above his economic class. But she loved him and was willing to live in lesser accommodations because none of that really mattered to her. But it mattered to him a great deal, and he was determined to scrounge his way to the top, even in the most disreputable field imaginable: entertainment. He concocts a museum of oddities from all over the world, but all of the exhibits are stuffed statues and wax figures—cold immovable things that no one wants to pay money to see. Then his family gives him the idea to include some living, breathing exhibits, such as Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), the smallest man alive; a bearded lady named Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a “dog boy,” and an array of other human “freaks.” Lo and behold, the crowds start pouring in.
To draw in a more refined crowd, he converts the show into a theater-going experience and (at least in this version of his story) brings in a partner in the form of Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), something of a rebel in the rich-folk world, who agrees to help grow the business and clientele. Also on hand is the mixed-race trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Zendaya), with whom Carlyle begins to have feelings, much to the world’s disapproval. The two also have one of the best musical/dance numbers in the entire film for the song “Rewrite the Stars,” written (as are all the songs) by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek.
First-time feature director (and former visual effects artist) Michael Gracey does a solid job giving us enough backstory for each of the circus performers to keep us interested in what happens when Barnum begins to ignore their theater show. He instead chooses to focus on booking a more traditional act, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), an angel-voiced singer from overseas, whose success would spell the mainstream acceptance Barnum has been craving for his entire career. Naturally, there are rumors of an affair between the two, and those whispers are enough to send Charity and the Barnum kids packing and off to her parents.
With a screenplay from Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, a bit too much of The Greatest Showman is cut and dried (or outright fabrications for the sake of a more streamlined story), but this isn’t a documentary, so the artistic license taken with his biography doesn’t really bother me. A couple of the songs featured here are particularly catchy, especially “This Is Me” (the song featured in the trailers, with Settle taking the lead). The movie is beautifully and elegantly shot and choreographed, and I especially enjoyed how the supporting circus performers are elevated into a type of rebellion as the outside townspeople begin a campaign of harassment and even violence against some of the performers.
Musicals are meant to be surreal, to varying degrees, which is another reason I don’t begrudge The Greatest Showman straying from the facts. In a way, the film presents itself as a series of memories that Barnum has from his position as ringleader for his show, now located inside an enormous tent. And when taken as such, this movie does a solid job of presenting its story and providing a fantastic place for these new songs. It’s not an exceptional work, and I struggle to think of anyone outside of hardcore Hugh Jackman fans (of which there are many) who might be interested in checking this one out. But if you need something on the more adult side in between your fourth and fifth time seeing The Last Jedi, this one isn’t half bad.