It’s clearly no accident that 2017 has been full of Barnum explorations – there’s been a blockbuster film, an appearance on Legends Of Tomorrow (played by Billy Zane) and a West End revival all at the tail end of the year. Now more than ever we’re fascinated as a culture with the nature of showmanship, truth and whether the ends justify the means in how our celebrated stories reach us.
The Greatest Showman follows the public ascent and private descent of the self-described inventor of showbusiness P T Barnum (Hugh Jackman). After marrying his childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), a woman far above his own station, and creating a modest life in New York City, he gets an idea for the kind of spectacle that would bring together the macabre and the wonderful.
Collecting a number of talented individuals who had previously been hidden away from society because of their differences, the resulting show becomes a massive success. But with success comes backlash, and Barnum soon tires of the circus and moves towards a far more socially acceptable form of stardom in singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). As he abandons the very people who made him a success, his marriage to Charity begins to crumble.
To quote this decade’s greatest showman (via Greek mythology) she married an Icarus, and he flew too close to the sun. As flawed a man as he was, the problematic elements of Barnum’s story don’t end with the man himself, but also include the circus’ treatment of animals, which PETA has been clear to point out during Showman’s publicity trail, and the exploitation of minorities for his own financial gain.
This isn’t an element The Greatest Showman overlooks, as such, and the story beats are all there. The problem is with tone and perspective, and the way in which the film holds back from making its hero truly heinous. Viewers sensitive to such things will immediately question the condescending nature of Barnum’s recruitment process, but for the most part it’s a narrow attitude the movie shares.
Towards the film’s end, the selfishness of Barnum’s exploits become more clear, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Barnum and his protege Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) are the stars of both film and circus, and the talent (or ‘oddities’) are treated as props in the story of a talented, but egocentric, visionary.
It’s for this reason that the trailer’s big centrepiece – the rousing performance of This Is Me by the supporting cast – is the best of the film. Taken alone, it hints at a rather different narrative that has these underdogs come out top. It’s the film’s best song, and also its best performance.
In general the music, provided by songwriters Pasek and Paul (who began working on the musical pre-La La Land and before their Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen), excel in certain instances more than others, but is solid throughout. It helps that the performers are so darn good, particularly Keala Settle as ‘bearded lady’ Lettie Lutz and Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler.
Other stars such as Williams perhaps don’t have the Broadway sheen of Jackman or the ease with musical theatre convention like Efron, but hold their own. The surprise in this department is Ferguson, who manages to convince as a vocal superstar, femme fatale and victim of Barnum’s hubris.
Original musicals might not be such a risk following the hype enjoyed by La La Land, but The Greatest Showman is traditional where the former was not. Where the film shines is in its production design and cinematography, marrying together the conventions of both stage and screen in a way that feels – if not unique – then at least distinctive.
Once you’ve seen Jackman and Williams dancing on the rooftop set against a gorgeously painted backdrop then you know what kind of film this is. It’s not interested in rewriting the rulebook, but in bringing the movie musical back to its roots through, ironically, the use of modern technology. The same can be said of the music, which takes notes from both pop and showtunes in the way that has become a signature of Pasek and Paul’s contributions.
In much the same way as its protagonist, The Greatest Showman is a victim of its own ambition and fails to quite meet the lofty heights it sets out for itself. At its heart, it’s about public and private faces, the human casualties of ambition and the joy of seeing Zac Efron back singing and dancing (Seriously, can we just lock him in some kind of contract that makes him star in a musical at least once a year?).
If we’re happily placated by our entertainment, and it brings us that particular kind of familiar joy, then does it matter how we get there? Does all populist art need challenge us intellectually, or should that be left up to the artist? Particularly pertinent right now is the question of whether we need to like the performer in order to appreciate the performance. The Greatest Showman asks these questions, but fails to really answer them.
The Greatest Showman is in UK cinemas from Boxing Day.