The Greatest Showman

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The Greatest Showman  (2017)    20th Century Fox/Musical-Drama    RT: 105 minutes    Rated PG (thematic elements, a brawl)    Director: Michael Gracey    Screenplay: Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon    Music: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul    Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey    Release date: December 20, 2017 (US)    Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

 

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 After the successes of last year’s Best Picture non-winner La La Land and this spring’s live-action Beauty and the Beast redux (as of right now, the year’s highest grosser), it looks like musicals may be making a comeback. One can only hope they’re all as good as The Greatest Showman, an old-fashioned song-and-dance musical starring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine himself) as P.T. Barnum, a visionary who founded “The Greatest Show on Earth”. That would be the Barnum & Bailey circus, an American institution for nearly 150 years until it folded its tents for good this past May. It should be noted that The Greatest Showman is only inspired by Barnum’s life and is NOT an accurate representation of it. The real story is much darker and not the stuff of a family-friendly musical. Thank Gog for that! When realism and musical meet, you get Dancer in the Dark (the depressing P.T. Anderson musical from 2000). The Greatest Showman is a pure delight.

 greatest showmanThe greatness of any given musical (movie or otherwise) is measured by show-stopping numbers. There are at least four in The Greatest Showman including the opener “The Greatest Show” in which Jackman in full ringmaster garb takes us on a dazzling ride around the center ring. The camera moves fluidly to a repetitive thumping percussion resembling Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. It then plunges you right into young Phineas Taylor’s (aka P.T.) childhood as the son of a poor tailor. He has a crush on a rich girl named Charity and expresses his feelings in song (“A Million Dreams”). Her snobbish father has made it clear that she’s off limits to the likes of him and ships her off to a finishing school. Several years later, they get married with words of discouragement from her dad.

 P.T. promises Charity (Williams, All the Money in the World) a good life but can’t hold on to a job. Being a dreamer, he decides to make his own fortune. He opens a museum featuring wax likenesses of historical figures and exotic animals but that fails to turn a profit. He then turns his attentions to creating a show featuring human oddities and people with special talents. He makes a dwarf (Humphrey), who would come to be known as General Tom Thumb, the star attraction. He also brings in a bearded lady (Broadway actress Settle) with a powerful singing voice, a fat man, a tall man, a tattooed man, Siamese twins and a pair of trapeze artists. The show becomes a success despite the protests of “decent people” who don’t like freaks. It doesn’t help that high society disapproves of Barnum and how he makes his money.

 Of the people that come into Barnum’s life, one becomes his show business partner. That would be Phillip Carlyle (Efron, the High School Musical movies), a playwright from a wealthy background. He’s bored with his life. Barnum talks him into joining the show even though it means his family will disown and disinherit him. This occurs in the movie’s second show-stopper “The Other Side” in which a rhythmic bartender puts down shot glasses and wipes the bar with a cloth to the beat. It’s a very well-choreographed number. It’s a complex number effortlessly performed. Another person who affects Barnum’s life is Swedish singer Jenny Lind played by Rebecca Ferguson (Florence Foster Jenkins). He brings her to the States to perform a series of concerts in hopes it will finally gain him acceptance to high society. But is it a club worth joining, especially if it means turning your back on your family and real friends?

 The Greatest Showman is relatively light-hearted; it doesn’t grapple with heavy important issues other than accepting those who are different in some way. For all their lives, the performers stayed hidden either by choice or their embarrassed families. Now they’re in the spotlight and they love it. The bearded lady, Lettie Lutz by name, transforms into a true diva. This gal can sing! Her song “This Is Me” is one of the film’s emotional centers. It totally captures the feelings of a much-maligned subset of people.

 Like I said earlier, The Greatest Showman views Barnum’s life through rose-colored glasses but I can’t fault it for that. For the purposes of a musical, it’s best to keep it simple and fun. Thus, the movie’s other big conflict is Barnum’s sense of low self-worth. He’s constantly trying to prove his father-in-law wrong about him never amounting to anything. His grand, larger-than-life persona is merely a façade. In the role, Jackman does a great job. Granted, he doesn’t bring a lot of gravitas to the role but boy can he sing and dance. It helps greatly that he’s likable in the part.

 Efron is also very good. This is one actor who keeps surprising me. Every now and then, he steps away from crude frat boy comedies like Neighbors and Baywatch and does a quality film like The Disaster Artist and now, The Greatest Showman. We already knew he could sing and dance; this is a huge step up from those teeny bopper musicals from Disney (I’ve still never watched them and NEVER will). Aside from that, he’s convincing as a rich kid looking to do more with his life than writing meaningless plays. His romance with trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is one of the best parts of the movie. They do this one number “Rewrite the Stars” where she flies on her trapeze while he climbs ropes to get to her. Up, down, around each other, together in a wide circle, it’s impressively choreographed. Williams is very good as Barnum’s supportive wife. She could have easily been the proverbial wet blanket but she shows a sense of spunk and adventure.

 The choreography in The Greatest Showman, as I’ve already indicated, is top-notch. The actors make it look easy which is a testament to their ability. The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) are great. It’s a solid debut for first-time director Michael Gracey who keeps things moving as a nice clip. At 105 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s not bloated and overlong. It’s colorful, vibrant and energetic. Best of all, it’s a feel-good movie. It’s sure to leave you with a smile on your lips and a song in your heart. Here’s to more movie musicals in 2018.

 



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