Twice now, the reviewer has tricked his friends into seeing a musical in theaters. And both times, Hugh Jackman was involved.
“The Greatest Showman,” the directorial debut of Australian visual effects artist Michael Gracey, has made itself known as the latest musical on the big screen. A completely original soundtrack, a star-studded cast and a vision realized in full by its director make “The Greatest Showman” a delight.
Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, the ambitious man of action that founded the Barnum and Bailey Co. circuses of international fame. The movie follows his ascension to American legend as the proprietor of Barnum’s American Museum. Within his museum’s walls are feats of skill and displays of the bizarre, and Barnum is eager to exploit all of it for profit.
The story of Barnum could very easily be a “Breaking Bad” style narrative of a tailor’s son rising from poverty to incredible wealth by lying to his audience. However, this movie instead chooses to portray the more inspiring (and fictional) side of the story, the ways that Barnum’s circus glorifies the strange and macabre.
“A celebration of humanity,” a character quotes towards the end of the film. These “freaks” include many different carnival classics, the most notable a bearded woman played by Keala Settle. In their ranks are the trapeze duo of Anne and W.D. Wheeler, played by Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Zac Efron joins the cast as Philip Carlyle, a fictional business partner of Barnum.
The movie is not without its flaws. Much of the story is very predictable, and it suffers from an excess of cheese in its humor. Those searching for an accurate, historical biopic should look elsewhere. This is not the true story of P.T. Barnum, but a fantasized narrative based around his life. The film has taken flack from critics for its inaccuracies, in particular, the romanticization of the degrading nature of the circus.
However, from a more subjective standpoint, the movie has many great strengths despite its flaws. “The Greatest Showman” stands out most for its spectacular visuals and soundtrack. The colorful, spontaneous nature of the circus is a delight, and the costume designers clothe each character in a wide range of splendiferousness. The soundtrack, composed by legendary duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is extremely good.
Jackman, Efron, Settle and others astound in their performances. Jackman has espoused this film as his “passion project,” and his performance attests to that. Efron returns to musicals for the first time since his “High School Musical” days, and thankfully he seems to actually be invested in the role.
An audience member’s enjoyment of “The Greatest Showman” will largely depend on certain aspects. First, the joy one feels upon seeing Jackman in a top hat. Second, one’s appreciation of Zendaya performing nearly all her own trapeze stunts for the film. Third, one’s enjoyment of musicals. The third is by far the most important.
“The Greatest Showman” is about as musical as musicals get. Character arcs occur over three minute periods, story beats are muddled in songs and the movie requires a greater suspension of disbelief than one without music. “The Greatest Showman” is a very good movie musical, and if someone enjoys that sort of thing, this movie is a must-go.