Director: Michael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle
Written by: Bill Condor and (also story) Jenny Bicks
Running Time: 105 mins
Release date: 26th December 2017
Entering into The Greatest Showman, we are offered visual delights and plenty of razzamatazz. Like the main character, P.T. Barum, what we get is plenty of show but very little business, filled with songs that never go anywhere and ultimately I left the cinema feeling a lack of satisfaction from any of it. Sure, this is a crowd-pleaser but I wasn’t part of that crowd who was pleased.
P.T Barum is a dreamer. Starting life in the gutter, he falls for a young girl called Charity and is determined to make something of himself to appease her father. He gets himself a job and they become a couple but he loses that position. Coming across an old abandoned wax museum, Barum cons the bank to lend him the money to buy it and turn it into a building filled with curiosities, advertising for people who are different than the rest. This leads to a mix of crowds rushing and distant from the locals to the point of riots. Yet this doesn’t stop Barum wanting more and wanting bigger.
I do have to congratulate the company for attempting a screen version of an original musical. A risky thing in this day and age, although after the success of La La Land, it didn’t seem hard to see that others would follow in its footsteps. I just wish that it was better and trust me, I wanted to really like it. It has cast members that I like and I have been known to visit a musical or two in my time. Yet this has problems all over the place.
Firstly, the songs. They just seem so generic. They all start off big and have nowhere to go but bigger and bigger still, as if you are starting off a race triumphant and then you are showing off. They aren’t that memorable either. I could only remember one number as I was driving home and that was the song they played in the trailer, “This Is Me!” In fact, “City of Stars” from La La Land slipped into my mind and almost suffocated the previous song. When I say generic, I mean one particular number wouldn’t seem out of place in High School Musical!
Mixing songs with a modern tone to them seems a fair enough idea but a variety of styles would have been nice. Jenny Lind, a Swedish songbird who Barum took under his wing to break the upper classes, is a perfect example. She was supposed to have the voice of an angel with her operatic style. A chance then to do something a little more classical. Alas this doesn’t happen and what we get is a ballad which is sung quite nicely but I hardly angelic and definitely not operatic.
Then we have the story. P.T. Barum is a fascinating man who spent his whole life conning the public into believing what they want to believe. He was a showman who took the extraordinary and made money off of those who were different. When you watch films like Tod Browning’s Freaks or David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, where people with some form of deformity were looked upon as freakish monsters, were trapped in a world in which they were the attractions for other people to become wealthy off. This never comes across in this film. I am pretty sure that Barum never gave them a huge cut of the box office, or a place to live or a level of decency and yet these angles are never explored.
What does happen is that we see moments of Barum’s life fired off in quick succession. This happened, a song, move on. Then this happened, a song, move on. So we get very little character development, the plot comes across as a series of “events” and every problem is sorted by a musical number. A perfect example is when Barum, almost a broken man having lost his leading lady, been accused of having an affair and is slowly running out of money, he is left in a bar drinking himself away when his team arrive, he sings a song, they dance and everything is all right. I wish real life was like that! At 104 minutes long, it crams so many subplots, all you want is for them to stop and concentrate on at least one of them deeper.
Yes, the musical numbers are impressive and the dance routines are eye-catching but this is all smokes and mirrors, just like Barum’s life. That seems to be the bulk of the problem. I never believed in any of it, so I was never emotionally involved. The characters never really developed enough to allow the talented cast to show their real talent. Hugh Jackman, who started life as a song and dance man, was born to play Barum and he throws his heart and soul into the musical numbers but we never get to the heart of his character, of how he struggled to make ends meet and then had to still put on the persona of a master showman. Zac Efron, as Barum’s partner, doesn’t develop at all, instead sings and dances and we know very little about him. The interracial relationship which appears during the film is brushed aside quite quickly, although it would be hard to see this actually happening during the period in question.
The saddest part is just how little Michelle Williams is used. Ms Williams is a very talented actress, who, as proven in Manchester By The Sea, can turn the smallest of parts into pure dynamite. Yet here she is left on the sidelines as Barum’s long-suffering wife who smiles and seems to go along with it. She is given very little drama to sink her teeth into, which is a shame.
The Greatest Showman comes across as a story that has so much potential for a cracking musical but has to tailor it to a market not sure about the genre. Barum has already been the subject of a musical and very good it is too but it concentrated on the showmanship, the circus and avoided the trappings of seriousness. This film wants to deal with tricky subjects but its only solution is another mundane song. A pity. I wanted to like it. I came out disappointed.