The Greatest Showman




In 1800’s America, a brash and confident dreamer named Phineas Taylor Barnum personified the proverbial rags to riches story by rising from obscurity and poverty to become America’s first pop culture impresario and create the very spirit of modern day show business.  His story is told in a musical-based and energetic fashion in the film THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.


It opens with a short musical number that is well choreographed, conjuring the spirit of Bob Fosse in its sharp and staccato precision before flashing back to the 1820’s when Barnum, as a young boy, accompanied his tailor father to the sumptuous homes of the rich for private garment fittings.  In one such abode, Barnum meets the daughter of the house, Charity, and a childhood crush becomes a life long love affair as they grow.

As a young man, Phineas (Hugh Jackman) woos and then marries Charity (Michelle Williams) against the supercilious objections of her disdainful father.  The couple have two daughters but Phineas loses his job as a shipping clerk when the company is bankrupted and he is desperate to find some means of survival to provide for his daughters and prove worthy of the love that lured Charity from affluence into poverty.


He is an inveterate dreamer with an overheated imagination who could make something from nothing and turn lemons into lemonade.  Teaming with a young rich-kid playwright named Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) he sought out the strange, the odd, the bizarre among people and dragged the marginal and dispossessed so called ‘freaks’ out of the shadows and into the limelight.  This group who would normally be ignored or shunned found themselves forging the bonds of a family and realizing that they all had a story to tell.


This film portrays Barnum as caring for his ‘circus family’ and feeling that his shows would give the public the chance to confront the humanity of his freaks and see their ‘realness’.  On the other hand he was a consummate manipulator and not shy with bending the truth to enhance the appeal.  The famous General Tom Thumb dressed as Napoleon was a child dwarf.  The ‘750 lb Irish Giant’ was in actuality a 500 lb Russian and of course, Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Lady cabaret singer, was a highlight.  He added to these a circus element with the star act being the black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). 


While visiting Queen Victoria, Barnum heard the celebrated Swedish opera singer Jennie Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and was captivated.  He had risked every penny mounting a tour of America and persuaded her to join his show as an opening act.  There are hints of infidelity as Lind is shown as developing a romantic fixation on Barnum, but whether this became an affair is not shown.  Perhaps to not disturb the PG rating as I see this film as having a strong appeal to families. 


This is not really a biopic. More a musical reverie that is an ode to dreams and the concept underlying the basis of early America.  That your talent, imagination and ability to work hard should be the only things that determine your success.


It is the debut feature film for Australian director Michael Gracey who thus far has only done television commercials and music videos.  He helmed this film with an exuberant sincerity that carries the story along in a rousing fashion.  It neither breaks moulds nor pushes boundaries but is basically intent on creating a mood of euphoric entertainment, at the expense of dramatic and psychological consistency.  The original songs are done by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Oscar winners for LA LA LAND.)


However, the balance scale does tip precariously at times between success and failure.


The choreography and theatrical sets are done with care and great artistry (almost hints of MOULIN ROUGE at times) and Jackman’s past musical theatre chops and screen appeal combined with his pleasant yet strong voice will undoubtedly help to sell this movie.  But the historical Barnum was not quite the social justice champion of the marginalized and maligned, and evangelist for diversity as portrayed and much of the story as shown is fiction.  In addition, while the actors do well with what they have, the characters are mainly ciphers and outlines.  I note the listing of six credited editors which may explain why the storyline and character development have been sliced to ribbons in favor of the musical interludes.


In all – a sanitized and overly-simplified story that uses the life of the renowned ‘Prince of Humbugs’ and master of hype and fakery, as a bedrock for some glitzy, razzle-dazzle screen sparkle.



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