The Greatest Showman – 2017
Director Michael Gracey
Screenplay Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon
Music by Pasek and Paul
Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Paul Sparks
If ever there was a purpose to the musical, it’s to show us what it’s like to put on a show. My favorite musical of all time (it’s a short list) is Singin’ In the Rain, and what that gave us was the dawn of a new age from the silent films to the “talkies.” The Greatest Showman gives the viewer front and center the creation of a form of entertainment that is a controversial institution and a way of life for America throughout the 20th Century. What is presented as a loose biography of its lead creator, P.T. Barnum becomes a truly timely and somewhat timeless work that gives those considered too odd to fit into life a chance to be loved as all humans deserve. On top of it all is a truly magnetic soundtrack with several truly memorable songs that actually fit within the context of the story.
Hugh Jackman is the titular character and he gives the role everything it needs. His performance: singing, dancing and acting is that of someone who truly believes in what he’s doing. This could because of the intense passion he poured into the project over the period of seven years. Original musicals have less a chance of success than those that have had the lead time of success on Broadway.
This time, with the success of Pasek and Paul coming off the inspired La La Land and the hit TV Show Smash, the chance seems a little more sure. When it comes to music they hit a home run. There is not one song in the set that is not good. Most of them are great. The soundtrack has been on repeat in my house for the last week. The highlights are many, but the pre-eminent tunes are the ensemble’s majestic The Greatest Show, Loren Allred’s powerfully haunting Never Enough, Keala Settle’s triumphant This is Me and Efron and Zendaya’s transcendent Rewrite The Stars. Honest to God, I can’t get these songs out of my head.
The acting is a cohesive effort within the framework of the music. The songs truly hit the points in the story square, most effectively in the brilliantly choreographed duet between Zendaya and Efron and the tightly spun The Other Side with Jackman counter-negotiating Efron.
Ferguson gives the movie and excellent centerpiece with her valiant lip-syncing of Allred’s powerful voice. The performance links together several points of the plot in such a way that gives director Gracey a lift through what seems to be a rushed last half of the film.
Indeed, if there were one complaint about the film, it’s that the songs and performances give so much to the characters, one wishes the film was half again as long so as to marinate in the world everyone worked so obviously hard to create. In particular, we could have used more interaction with the “freaks” that become incredibly humanized in a short period of time. Settle leads a cast of very interesting people who become more normalized with every shot of the camera.
In an era when trans-humanism has become so prevalent in the media, it’s a wonder to go back a century and see people come out of the shadows of society that human nature had placed upon them. These we’re people looking to evolve. They were already pushed outside of the normal human box. They didn’t necessarily want to get back into that box, either. They just wanted love, like every person does. This shows us how much everyone deserves it.
There is some hokiness to the proceedings. What musical would be complete without that. There also are a few animated animal scenes that look ridiculous, but we’re not really here to see the animals sing and dance.
The rest of the cast is excellent, in that we get to see a glimpse of real talent. Triple threats, for the most part. It makes me happy that I got to experience the circus first hand as a kid, and it makes me rue that my daughters never will. Questions about the treatment of animals aside, there is a hole in the world of entertainment where the circus used to be.
Thanks to Jackman and his enthusiasm, we get a glimpse of what might have been. I would love to see a sequel to this wonderful film. There could be a wonderful world to explore more than they allowed themselves this time. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see the story extended. Nothing prevents one from dreaming, though. And thank God for that.
(**** out of *****)