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New Release Review - THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

the greatest showman review
Musical biopic of entertainment entrepreneur PT Barnum.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Michael Gracey

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle

the greatest showman poster


Like most of history's great entrepreneurs, Phineas Taylor Barnum made his name and fortune off the sweat and talent of others. A hugely problematic figure known for his exploitation of people cast to the fringes of acceptable society, his life story seems more fitting for a damning There Will Be Blood style character study than a song and dance show. Yet for years Hugh Jackman has been attempting to bring a musical based on the exploits of Barnum to the screen, and now it finally arrives in the form of The Greatest Showman.

The film introduces us to Barnum as a young urchin who meets and falls for Charity, the daughter of a local wealthy businessman. A musical number takes us forward a few decades, and Barnum and Charity are now adults, though oddly the former is now a 49 year old Jackman while the latter is a 37 year old Michelle Williams. Tired of working in a Tati-esque open plan office, Barnum purchases a run down exhibit of stuffed animals, but fails to find an audience.

the greatest showman

Following his daughter's advice to add "something alive" to the show, Barnum tracks down a variety of human 'curiosities', including a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a dwarf (Sam Humphrey) and a beautiful acrobat (Zendaya). His new show is an instant hit, and roping in rich playwright (you can tell this is fantasy) Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and Swedish songbird Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), Barnum builds an entertainment empire.

Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon's script doesn't exactly posit Barnum as a messianic figure, but it's one hell of a white-washed view of his 'show'. The 'freaks' in his employ are portrayed here as a group of outsiders whom Barnum empowers by putting them to work as singers and dancers. Of course, in reality they were simply exhibits, required to sit still and silent while Barnum's customers paid for the privilege of laughing and scowling at their unconventional appearance.

the greatest showman

The Greatest Showman bends the truth considerably in its depiction of certain characters. Take Charles Stratton, the dwarf who famously performed under the guise of General Tom Thumb - here he's a 22 year old who enjoys a new lease of life as an entertainer, while the real Stratton was put to work as a four year old (!!!) by Barnum, and part of his show involved smoking cigars on stage. Or how about Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, portrayed here as a Nordic seductress who attempts to tear Barnum away from his family with her immoral European ways? The real Lind was actually a devoutly religious woman who gave her fees to charity!

Like a certain other American entrepreneur, Jackman's Barnum paints those who oppose him as a cartel of elitists and snobs. The closest the film has to an outright villain is a theatre critic who (understandably) fails to find any value in Barnum's 'freak show'. Barnum mocks him as "a theatre critic who can't find any joy in the theatre," a line delivered as a sly preemptive dig at anyone who dares give The Greatest Showman a negative write-up.

the greatest showman

In terms of rewriting history, The Greatest Showman is a toxic spectacle, a morally reprehensible piece of work, one that's as offensive to a modern enlightened audience as Barnum's show was to cultured theatre-goers of the 19th century. Yet while its ignorant lack of self-awareness makes it one of the most problematic movies to come out of Hollywood in recent times, such innocence gives it an undeniable appeal. At a briskly paced 105 minutes, it's completely lacking in pretension ; the songs may be bland lyrically, but you'll find yourself tapping your toes, with a melody or two rolling around your head days after; and it's that rare modern musical that actually boasts a cast made up of performers who possess the necessary talents for the genre.

Annoyingly, today's screen musicals tend to either feature extended head to toe shots of actors who can neither sing nor dance (La La Land a prime example) or chopped up, music video style numbers that deny us the joy of watching athletic bodies in choreographed motion. When you have the likes of Jackman, Efron and Zendaya in your cast, why not let the camera pull back and let us bask in their skills? First time director Michael Gracey's origins in commercials and music promos is all too evident in this respect. Couldn't he have watched the classic musicals of Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen, or even the 'No Dames' number of the Coen Bros' Hail, Caesar!, to see how this should be done?

The Greatest Showman is in UK/ROI cinemas December 26th.




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