Review: The Greatest Showman

I really like the soundtrack for this film. I like the circus. It seems to have all the right ingredients for me.

The Greatest Showman is not an accurate biopic. It’s not trying to be. It’s a musical, selling the optimistic fantasy version of the beginnings of the modern circus.

The opening of the film is stunning: a musical number showcasing the thrills and wonders of the circus, which begins to darken and fall apart before our eyes until the ringmaster stands alone, the dream faded, then we flash back to the beginning, Barnum’s childhood.

I wish the rest lived up to the promise of the opening. It’s not a terrible film. It just isn’t quite equal to its ambitions. A good musical is one in which the audience can lose themselves, music directing the emotions as the drama unfolds. But matching the music to the emotion is exactly where The Greatest Showman fails.

There are two stories in this film, or perhaps the same story seen from two very different perspectives. The first is the story of Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a working class boy who falls in love with a girl of a higher social class. He has dreams and ambitions but essentially it’s all about proving he can be better than those who looked down on him. Success is all about a seat at the table. Alongside this is the perspective of the people around him, none of whom can hope to be accepted by high society because they are not white, because they are different in other ways. They are used to being outsiders and find something else in the show’s success: family, acceptance, solidarity.

Barnum isn’t content with financial success. He needs to impress the right people and they aren’t the ones buying tickets. So he engages an opera singer and puts on a show in a real theatre. It’s a stunning success. There is a moment when the rest of the company arrive to celebrate with him, and he won’t let them in, ashamed of the freaks who gave him his success. This is where the breakout song comes in: Keala Settle as the bearded lady sings “This Is Me” defiant, brave, celebrating all the beauty and diversity of the company. And it doesn’t work because it begins and ends with rejection.

Several of the songs have similar tonal oddities. The Greatest Show isn’t spectacular enough; the romantic and hopeful Rewrite the Stars ends in heartbreak. Possibly the dissonance is deliberate; I can see that it might be meant to show the darkness underneath the fantasy but I don’t think it really succeeds. This is largely because we don’t spend enough time with the “oddities” to empathise with them. The only one with any kind of a story arc is Zendaya’s Anne and she isn’t ugly or strange, her only “outsider” status comes from being a person of colour. Not to imply that racism isn’t an issue. It is. But it’s like the exploitation and prejudice toward the “oddities” is sidelined in favour of the more acceptable (nowadays) inter-racial romance and that’s just not right.

It has the feel of too many cooks: like there was an earlier version that didn’t have these problems but got “fixed”. I don’t know. It’s still a good film if you like the genre and I did enjoy it. Just not quite as much as I hoped I would.

For comparison:

Rotten Tomatoes The Greatest Showman
Rating as on 31 December 2017