You know over the years I’ve found a new respect for cinematic musicals, specifically ones that are original properties. While it’s impressive to take an already established stage musical and turn it into a good film it’s even more impressive, and frankly more difficult in my opinion, to create something original that comes to life on screen. While it’s not perfect, “The Greatest Showman” is an example of how the musical elements of these films can make or break the project, even if the movie as a whole lacks that special something to make it truly amazing. So is “The Greatest Showman” a show worth watching? Here’s my review!
“The Greatest Showman” tells the story of legendary showman P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he brings together numerous individuals who are outcasts of society to create the early iteration of the famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. As his fame grows Barnum’s search for success leads him to cross paths with Swedish songstress Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and take her show on the road, causing him to neglect his circus and his family before having to come to grips with the man he truly wants to be. The film also includes Zac Efron as playwright Phillip Carlyle, a fictional character who becomes Barnum’s protégé with a slew of unique actors including Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey and others as the oddities that make up the first version of Barnum’s circus. Michelle Williams portrays Barnum’s wife Charity while Paul Sparks portrays James Gordon Bennett, a news writer who becomes a critic of Barnum’s shows.
There are several different ways you can look at this film. On one hands it’s a very loose biographical picture, on another it’s an inspired drama, and on yet another it’s a music filled look into the mind of a dreamer. I will be tackling all three in this review as each approach plays into the true quality of “The Greatest Showman”. First I want to start with the cast however as we see some very good performances by familiar and new names in this movie. While many of the oddities are very much there to be filler characters that happen to have dancing ability, the one’s that do get some time in the spotlight are memorable and well played as leaders of their band of outcasts. The two most prominent “leaders” are Keala Settle’s bearded lady Lettie and Sam Humphrey’s dwarf performer Charles Stratton who goes by the stage name Tom Thumb. You may not know these names but both these performers fit right in as the head figures in the circus, often leading the inspirational moments and, in the case of Settle, leading the musical numbers as well. While the oddities do take a bit of a backseat in this film, despite the fact that they should have been a centerpiece of the project, the actors who portray the most prominent of these figures provide charm and personality making their odd characters feel like true people who are misunderstood and deserving of a place in the world around them.
Of course the whole cast is led by Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum and, being the man he is, Jackman does a fantastic job leading this cast as the original ringleader of the most famous circus in history. While the film does sugarcoat the realities of Barnum’s life a bit (I’ll touch on that later) Jackman still portrays the famed showman as an imperfect man, one who at some points forgets who he is and what is most important in his life due to his drive for fame. Barnum is the man all of us are meant to compare ourselves to in this film. Jackman perfectly presents a man who seeks to make something of himself and has to make the hard choices when that fame becomes too big to handle. It’s a role that commands attention without being heavy handed or overpowering the rest of the prominent characters in the project. It might be a little watered down in the grand scheme of things, but Jackman does his best with what he has, giving us a performance that proves he can still dominate the screen and bring any part he plays to fully realized life.
Somewhat of a B story in the film is the relationship between fictional characters Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). This romance is meant to be part of one of several deeper elements of the film with a subtle approach to racial tensions of the time and is the source of some of the more touching moments in the story. Zendaya and Efron don’t have the most amazing chemistry on screen, but they make this relationship believable which is all that really matters. While Zendaya’s involvement in the movie is pretty much left as a romantic interest and a center figure for the deeper elements of the film, it’s Efron’s leading role as a fictional protégé of Barnum that really stands out. Aside from Jackson, Efron gets probably the second greatest amount of screen time and he makes every bit of it count. Carlyle’s evolution is the exact opposite of Barnum’s with Carlyle going from bratty socialite to humble showman as Barnum evolves from humble man to fame-seeking snob. Together they make a great pair that help drive the movie’s emotional core and despite all the relationships we see in this movie this is the one that drives more character development between leads than any other. The problem is it does feel somewhat hollow in hindsight when you consider it was a relationship that never really existed.
Now as I said this movie can be viewed three different ways and I’m going to tackle two at once here. You can look at it as a drama or as a biopic but really it’s more of a loose based-on-real-life drama than anything else. It is true, as many have stated, that this film glosses over some of the more brutal realities of Barnum’s life. This movie is very much a loose interpretation of the greatest showman’s rise to relevance and as a biopic leans WAY to much on its softer, more family friendly tone and original characters to be considered anything close to an accurate interpretation of Barnum’s real life experiences. Instead it merely borrows from those realities to give us a story that romanticizes Barnum more than many probably expected it to.
As a drama though this film works very well giving us a well paced examination of what a dreamer can do with a bit of determination and gusto. While I only briefly mentioned her in my opening summary, Rebecca Ferguson’s Jenny Lind, who was a real life figure in Barnum’s life, provides the source of much of the late drama Barnum experiences by creating somewhat of a love triangle as well as food for Barnum’s fame addiction. This is only one of several sub-stories that make “The Greatest Showman” an effective drama. I already mentioned the racial tensions tackled in the relationship between Efron and Zandaya’s characters and the odities themselves have to contend with violent mobs that help draw attention to the judgmental nature of society in general. When you combine the themes of individuality, acceptance, the risks and rewards of fame and the racial subtext of the movie you get a film that has a lot going on in a short amount of time but it’s all well balanced and the final product thankfully never goes overboard in its central message of diversity and humility.
More than anything though this movie is a musical, and a darn good one I might add. With lyrics and music written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the same musical duo behind 2017’s “La La Land” which was my favorite movie of last year, I had high hopes for the soundtrack and I wasn’t disappointed. Every song fits perfectly with the scenes and each one contains some semblance of the underlying themes hidden within the movie. The vocal performances are spot on and the dance numbers are extremely well choreographed making “The Greatest Showman” quite a musical spectacle. This is by far the best part of this show, listening to these actors and actresses, and in some cases third party artists, belt out these tunes and watching how the songs fit into their respective scenarios so perfectly. It might not be the most flashy of drama films or the most accurate biopic, but “The Greatest Showman” IS a fantastic musical with every song having a memorable quality to them and this is the one reason why I personally cannot wait to see this film again.
So no, “The Greatest Showman” is not a perfect film. It contains many historical flaws that make its real life story and inspiration seem watered down for a family friendly product, but the dramatic tension and social messages in the movie are commendable and, if nothing else, it’s a fantastic and memorable musical that will have you singing along even after the credits roll. Incredible vocal performances and a well paced plot that avoids being too heavy handed while also embracing some social significance helps make “The Greatest Showman” a solid viewing experience that, honestly, tends to be better than it deserves to be at times. It might not fully explore everything worth noting about its subject as a biopic and frankly fails as a a proper interpretation of Barnam’s life, but in the end it makes up for that as a respectable drama film and spectacular musical earning it a pretty decent score from me.