The Greatest Showman deftly tells the story of a charming hustler intent on bringing his dreams to vivid (and profitable) life. The character at the center of the action is, Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) best known as P.T. Barnum.
The Greatest Showman‘s a story told with a deliberately light dramatic touch and bombastic savoir-faire. It’s less traditional musical biopic and more a stylistic “highlight reel.”
But while P.T. Barnum may be the story focus, it’s the people who make up his menagerie that give this film its purpose.
This film entices its audience to engage and have fun while gleaning its message from the margins. So if you wait around for this tale to told through dialogue, then you’re going to miss most of the important (and interesting) bits and leave feeling like it’s a film with little substance under the glitter and glam.
The Greatest Showman delivers its character backstory through song and dazzling visuals. It entertains and keeps the film’s pace with delightful syncopated precision.
The cinematography and set design are nothing short of amazing. The period costuming and site location establish time and place perfectly. Everything behind the scenes works together to capture the heartbeat of this period piece and sets a believable image of the times.
I’m pretty sure I could watch the opening sequence of The Greatest Showman once a day. Great staging, fantastic lighting, perfect vocal drop in. It has the rush of opening night, that moment of great expectation and Hugh Jackman striking a dashing pose.
This scene does more than just set the tone; it sets the pace and The Greatest Showman doesn’t slow down for a single second.
Grade: B- (due entirely to the extraordinary visuals and accidental revelations behind all that dancing)
But this isn’t really the story of P.T. Barnum, showman, impresario and circus master. It’s a tale invented by screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and Director Michael Gracey’s vision of a savvy American nobody who built an empire and fortune out of his wit, hard work, and ingenuity.
And that’s not who P.T. Barnum was at all. In reality, he launched his career as a showman by exploiting former slave and extremely elderly Joice Heath turning her into an exhibit then authorizing her public autopsy after death.
He wasn’t just a “hardworking Joe” turned businessman made good. He was a social climbing, fast-talking, huckster who wasn’t above employing a good gimmick to make a name for himself. He repeatedly and shamelessly exploited others for his own gain.
Barnum’s motto might well have been, “scandal equals sales.”
Phineas Taylor Barnum is not a hero, he wasn’t a trailblazer; but he is very much so the embodiment of a capitalist-minded, win at all costs (as long as the profits wind up in my pocket) American businessman. He should not be lauded as a role model or example of how to get ahead. But this is America, so of course, he’s cast in an admirable light and given the “Hollywood” treatment.
So, how do you build a movie around such an unapologetic shyster?
With music, dancing, to die for costuming and sublime set designs. Naturally.
With a story that wholeheartedly distracts from a few truths: 1) there are plenty of people who believe that realizing their dreams are more important than people’s lives; 2) “American ingenuity” is usually just code for a willingness to lie, cheat, steal and shamelessly use people to get what one wants. Obviously.
By focusing on the dazzling extravaganza of it all and peppering the rest of the cast with people and story arcs that uplift and only hint at the grime beneath it all. Of course.
This entire script is a lie. But that doesn’t take away from the fact this ensemble cast led by Hugh Jackman, Zac Effron, and Michelle Williams do a pretty solid job of selling it (jazz hands and all).
P.T. Barnum would be proud.
After the opening credits, time swiftly rewinds to reveal a young Phineas and his father struggling to make ends meet and working for an upper-crust (socially and financially) family. Phineas lives in his head where anything is possible including marrying the daughter of his father’s employer Charity. Almost immediately, talking gives way to singing and the lyrics carry the story arc and character development forward right through to the end.
This part of the story is, for the most part, sweet and intended to have you rooting for Phineas to capture his dream, win his girl, and sail into a great future. But while it offers insight into how Charity and Phineas grow closer and remain true..ish to each other and their hopes, it also reveals the beginnings of Phineas’s willingness to do anything to make a buck.
Jackman plays Barnum with enduring wit and a charmingly slick edge. He’s a guy with his eye on the main chance and his head in the clouds. He’s promised himself a grand life and he’ll stop at nothing (and for no one) to make it happen.
It’s clear from the story angle, Gracey wants you to see Barnum as a man unafraid to step outside the norm (exploit), to innovate (cheat), and invent (lie). You’re supposed to be inspired by his ingenuity (sticky fingers) and quickwittedness (con); it’s supposed to showcase the American work-ethic and “bootstrapping” mentality at work, so to speak.
His relationship first with Charity and then with his daughters in the movie humanizes Barnum up to a point and the reworking of the Jenny Lind years serves to underscore that he’s not completely without loyalty (he so is) and integrity (just saying that word would totally give him hives).
I found this more accidentally unvarnished look at a man of his type refreshing. Jackman’s portrayal leans “into the light” but the overt inferences and his onscreen interactions tell the real tale. P.T. Barnum was a selfish, smarmy asshole of a man.
His use of the subversive wasn’t intended to benefit anyone although that was a very real secondary effect (the primary being he made money) for those ordinarily cast-out and shammed. Those “othered” by society found kinship, homes and a greater sense of safety working under his banner. He wasn’t a humanitarian. He didn’t give a damn about the plight of others unless it could make him a dollar.
So kudos to the film’s screenwriters for finding a way to paint Barnum as just a quick-thinking American with a dream and a heart of gold. It only goes to show what good writing and a loose relationship with the truth can really accomplish.
Despite being issues of the day, the secondary storylines are decidedly modern feeling: A tale of star-crossed love (a story I’d much rather watch unfold with greater detail), the combustible public protests against his showcase of Oddities, the hostile environment his cast members navigated daily and the chokehold Barnum had over the players in his exhibits (let’s not pretend he wasn’t running a human circus).
All these story arcs serve to balance the scales (but not nearly enough) and insert a dose of the realistic into The Greatest Showman. Some of the musical numbers didn’t sync with the time period and therefore rang slightly false. They’re great songs but not always put to their best use. This may be due to the aggressively modern niche Ben Pasek and Justin Paul seem content to rest in.
Plus the story angle and direction took gross liberties with what truly would’ve been permitted which undercuts the emotional payoff in the end and makes it all just one more element of Barnum’s showcase.
There are moments where it’s clear Gracey wants you to see them as pivotal for Barnum emotionally. We’re to believe those moments are what shape his willingness to bring those living in the shadows to the main stage. Not that he’s playing to the public’s interest in the macabre and bizarre.
Gracey does a solid job of “show not tell” for the majority of the film but he’s occasionally a bit heavy-handed.
It doesn’t detract from the story or the glorious visuals but it does make everything feel as though it’s trying just a little too hard (because making P. T. Barnum not come across as the trash he is is hard work) and aiming to deliver the overall storyline with an edge that just a little too slick.
But anyone willing to can see P.T. Barnum was a charming flim-flam man who pitched the right scheme at the right time to the right banker to secure funding with a wink, smile and some slick talking and sleight of hand. He saw a niche market he could capitalize on and goes for it with no remorse.
I will not be surprised if most critics flat out do not like The Greatest Showman.
The Greatest Showman is a song and dance extravaganza that’s anchored in joy, light, pain, hubris, laughter, and promise. It’s far more than a simple “boy makes good” story.
Go, have fun but remember this is “theater” at its best; don’t get blinded by the lights.
Overall: 2.75 out of 5 (because truth in advertising damn well matters)
*this movie’s theater track is LOUD (not quite Dunkirk loud though)
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