Let’s get this out of the way: The Greatest Showman is not a biopic. Phineas Taylor Barnum (P.T. for short) was a historical figure, absolutely. Yet, within the first five minutes of this rousing audience-pleaser, it is quite firmly established – amidst a toe-tapping, fist-pumping reverie balanced out with a modern musical aesthetic – that this was never meant to dive into the sordid past of one P.T. Barnum. It was a film that was made to jazz up the crowd, lift their spirits, and turn that frown upside down.
The Greatest Showman follows P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he makes his way through life, born into poverty, desperately seeking the adoration of the wealthy. Though his life seems meager to him, Barnum finds the love of his life in wealthy socialite, Charity (Michelle Williams). We follow their love as the song “A Million Dreams” carries them from youth through marriage and two daughters, ultimately landing exactly where the story needs to be to tell the next chapter.
These whimsical set-pieces are commonplace in director Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman, utilizing musical numbers to update us on current events or whisk us into the next scene. As we catch our breath, Barnum informs us of his plan: round up some of the strangest misfits in town – a bearded lady, a hair covered boy, a dwarf, a grossly overweight man, a trapeze artist, etc. – and put together the greatest show in town. Give the world something to gawk at, and charge a fair price to do so. An absolute circus of oddities.
As far as the remainder of the story goes, it’s predictably paint-by-numbers. Barnum tastes success, yet craves respectability and approval from the highbrow. This leads to an attempt at legitimacy with Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a sensational opera singer from overseas, and a conflict with those misfits who created his legacy to begin with. What will happen? You have seen one of these stories before, have you not?
Well, you haven’t seen it told like THIS! This is a film to experience. There are times in our moviegoer lives where we need to check our own expectations or reservations at the door, and allow a film to sweep us off our feet and have its way with us. The Greatest Showman offers nothing new in terms of narrative, plotting, or emoting; but it is one helluva good time!
Leading the way is Hugh Jackman – the most multifaceted actor working today – who grabs his performance as P.T. Barnum with ferocity and enraptures us at every turn with his charisma and magnificent ability to command the screen whenever he is present. For a man who deserved an Oscar nod just for how well he growled in this year’s Logan, it is an astounding about-face to now be celebrated for the polar opposite of that performance.
Barnum is upbeat and positive, a motivational speaker for those lost in the darkest corners of the world. And it’s Jackman who brings this character and film to life, inspiring everyone under his spell to step up their game and get in on this show. His every movement felt less like choreography than it did a natural, fluid gliding of aura and mystique.
The other clear standouts in the film are Keala Settle’s Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady. Her pipes are as legit as her screen presence, and then capitalizes on her sheer talent to convince us by the end that beards on a woman might be sexy after all. And my god, how have could I have forgotten the unbridled talent of Zac Efron?! Saddled down with far too many schlocky comedies these last few years, I completely exercised the musical talents of Efron, and that information came rushing back in his first five minutes as Phillip Carlyle. A stirring rendition of “The Other Side” – where Barnum attempts to convince Carlyle to join his quest for legitimacy – amounts to an electric game of one-uppance as both men attempt to showcase their theater prowess while perfectly timing whiskey shots, and you cannot once take your eyes off of either.
Speaking of mesmerizing, Zendaya’s pink-haired trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler, is on screen maybe a quarter of the film. And though her burgeoning love story with Carlyle eventually takes hold, it’s her screen presence that comes as a complete shock here. Much like Efron, Zendaya has that “IT” quality, an innate ability to briskly glide by a scene and immediately captivate our very being. This is an actress with a true gift for adorning the screen, and I hope to see her career take an uptick after this and her Spider-Man: Homecoming role earlier this year.
In closing, if you are hunting for the truth in P.T. Barnum’s rise to the top of the circus market, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s not here, nor does this film ever aspire to deliver that. This is a tale of revisionist history, modified to serve as a tale of dignity and acceptance.
BUT, if you’re open to pure, unadulterated fun, The Greatest Showman is one of the giddiest films you’ll see in a theater this year. If you have it in your heart to let facts cascade by the window and indulge in a bit of sheer joy, you will not be disappointed and I can promise you’ll be humming this brilliant soundtrack for days after. Hugh Jackman and this exceptionally talented cast drop a smile grenade in our laps and keep bringing us back for more.
In fact, for 2017, this just might be one of the best damn shows on Earth.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya
Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon
Directed by Michael Gracey