The Broad Side of a Barnum
Dear friends – circumstances have resulted in my undergoing a change of scene, and I find myself without the prospect of seeing any new movies for a couple of months – possibly much longer, if my appeal is not granted. Rather than leaving the Post bereft of the regular brand of nonsense, the editors and I have cooked up the following stop-gap measure: there are only fifty or so Posts every year, which means I inevitably end up neglecting to review the occasional significant movie. So I thought we could use this gap to rectify this a bit and revisit some recent films which got overlooked when they originally came out.
Frankly, I'm not entirely sure 'significant movie' is quite the right way of describing our first catch-up, which was unleashed upon the world at the end of 2017. I am fully aware that this film is practically the index case of an audience and critics responding to something in utterly different ways, but having been sat down and virtually forced to watch it again since, I stand by my original verdict...
'Why are you going to see The Greatest Showman? You’re going to hate it,’ said Next Desk Colleague, looking genuinely baffled. Well, a number of reasons, to be perfectly honest – things are quiet at work at the moment, giving me plenty of afternoons to spend catching up on the current crop of movies, and there’s also the fact that a friend whose judgement I respect had already informed me that it was (not to put too fine a point on it) ‘atrocious’, and if there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s the promise of a genuinely duff film. And lurking at the back of my mind was the spectral figure of the mysterious individual who went to see The Greatest Showman eight times at the same local cinema in the first few days of its release. I’ve only seen The Empire Strikes Back four times at the cinema, for heaven’s sake, and if memory serves the all-time record is held by The Two Towers, on six – and that was over the course of twelve months. So I couldn’t help but be a bit curious about Michael Gracey’s movie.
Depending on how you look at it, this is a feel-good family-friendly musical extravaganza, a carefully-positioned tilt at the awards season from 20th Century Fox, or the first step in Hugh Jackman’s post-Wolverine movie career. Or it might just be a biopic of the famous American entrepreneur and impressario Phineas T Barnum, albeit one with an especially shaky grip on historicity.
Well, anyway: Phineas Barnum (Jackman, mostly) grows up in abject poverty as a pauper on the streets of New York, but makes enough of a fortune (the film is vague about exactly how) to be able to marry his much-better-off childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), even though they and their inevitable children end up living in fairly limited circumstances. Barnum eventually cons a bank into lending him the money to buy a museum, which is far from a runaway success (the film is characteristically cheery about the fact its protagonist is what is technically known as a massive fraudster).
Barnum refuses to let this get him down, and – acting on advice from his daughters – decides to convert the museum into first a freak show and then a circus, personally headhunting his troupe of midgets, bearded ladies, conjoined twins, morbidly obese gentlemen, and giants. Naturally, this turns Barnum into a roaring success, and allows him to take on a junior partner (Zac Efron). Soon he is rubbing shoulders with the well-off and well-bred, and taking the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, not doing her own singing) on a tour of the States. But is Barnum’s desire to better himself socially in danger of making him forget the really important things in his life?
Counterpointing this, in the sense that it basically hits pretty much an identical set of notes but with different actors, is a subplot about Efron’s character having a bit of a romance with the circus’ trapeze artist (Zendaya Coleman, in a Mollie Sugden wig). He comes from wealth and privilege, and she is African American, which is obviously a problematic combination given the period in which the film is set. Can true love win through?
Well, it may be that some people will be surprised by the manner in which the story of The Greatest Showman eventually resolves itself, but I cannot imagine who they are: members of remote tribes of Papua New Guinea on their first visit to civilisation, perhaps. Then again, it’s not actually a crime for a film to be a touch predictable, and it’s not as if this is the film’s biggest problem.
It may be that you don’t live near a cinema or are otherwise unable to sample what The Greatest Showman has on offer. In this case I offer the following guide to having a broadly similar experience: carve yourself a heroic chunk of the ripest cheese you can lay your hands on, sprinkle it more than liberally with sugar, and then feast away to your heart’s content. The Greatest Showman has no truck with things like subtlety or nuance, it just ploughs through the story with a big happy grin on its face. Barnum’s early life is dealt with so summarily that he starts singing the first big number of the film as a pre-adolescent boy and finishes it as Hugh Jackman, who is rather older (sadly, the song is not a rewrite of one from The Sound of Music entitled 'I Am Thirteen Going On Fifty').
The film clearly wants to give the audience a joyous, life-affirming experience so much it hurts, but it makes the fairly elementary mistake of assuming that in order to do so the mood has to be relentlessly up all the time. If you look at the truly great musicals, they all contain a strong element of real pain and darkness, and some quite heavy subject matter. The Greatest Showman makes a vague gesture in this direction but it never really feels as though its heart is in it, to be perfectly honest. The film’s big theme, to the extent that it actually has one, is the currently-ubiquitous one of inclusion and diversity. Fair enough: it is, as I say, inescapable at the moment. It is, however, surely a slightly odd choice to try and couple this to a story about a man running a freak show, even leaving aside the fact that this diversity-friendly, inclusive movie is one where the two lead characters are a couple of heterosexual white dudes. The mauling that historical fact takes in the process of being adjusted to suit the film’s agenda might be sufficiently brutal to make some viewers call the emergency services.
But now we come to the volta, because I haven’t really touched on The Greatest Showman‘s songs and other musical routines yet. The songs are courtesy of Pasek and Paul, who also did the ones in La La Land, and on paper they seem like a fairly anodyne collection, all with messages about being yourself, following your dreams, choosing your own destiny, and so on. Some of the choreography is a long way sub-Bob Fosse, too. However, I’m beginning to suspect that Hugh Jackman’s own mutant superpower is the ability to sell musical theatre to an audience, because the very least you can say about the songs is that they are pleasant to actually listen to. It’s not quite Hamilton, but this is still contemporary stuff: this only occasionally becomes intrusive and silly, as in the moment when renowned opera singer Jenny Lind commences a concert with a 21st century power ballad.
However, many of the musical numbers are good enough to lift the spirit in the same way as the best moments of classic musicals of the past. I was humming the first big number, ‘A Million Dreams’, all the way home on the bus, for instance. The staging also helps – Jackman and Efron swagger through a duet entitled ‘The Other Side’, and a very decent song is lifted by some brilliant choreography. The songs are really the main reason to even consider watching this movie.
Whether or not the songs are enough to lift The Greatest Showman from the realm of well-meaning cheesiness and give it some credibility is, I suspect, a question everyone will have to answer for themselves. I don’t think this comes anywhere close to the great musicals of the past, but for me the musical numbers were good enough to make the weakness and cheesiness of the rest of the movie excusable. Your mileage may differ, of course, and even I would say that The Greatest Showman is probably more enjoyable as a soundtrack album than an actual movie.