I understood The Greatest Showman’s tone from its opening scene alone: a flashy, over the top performance of extravagant wonders, headed by Hugh Jackman’s charismatic vocals. It wasn’t a setting that screamed “realism,” but it offered the same level of pizazz that one would expect from P.T. Barnum, arguably one of history’s greatest showmen and entertainers. I won’t deny that I found myself singing along to the lyrics of ‘The Greatest Show,’ as well as multiple other songs throughout the film; yet they were followed up by a single nagging question: is this true?
After all, The Greatest Showman is presented as a celebration of Barnum’s accomplishments, but if anything the man was an honest scammer. He knew that the stuff he sold wasn’t necessarily real but so did the audiences, and they eagerly let themselves be hoodwinked just to walk out of the show with a smile. Similarly, The Greatest Showman is a lot of things, but a biopic is not one of them. It plays up the spectacle of Barnum’s business at the cost of character development and details on the man’s actual life. Still, given songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s previous experience with La La Land, spectacle was something handled extremely well.
The film details enough of Barnum’s (Jackman) life that we understand his desires: marrying his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams) and starting a family that offers happiness on a simple level. Nonetheless, Barnum wants more for his family and for himself, viewing the class differences between them as a motivator for success. When ordinary jobs fail, he tries to make a name for himself with a museum dedicated to the obscene and unusual. At first the show is dedicated to wax figurines but, at the suggestion that he add something “spectacular,” Barnum decides to include real people into the mix. Thus he gathers a group of people labeled “freaks” for their abnormalities and talents, including a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a man with dwarfism dubbed “General Tom Thumb,” (Sam Humphrey) and acrobatic siblings Anne and W.D. Wheeler (Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
These performers grant Barnum success on a local level, but his work is deemed a low class “circus of humbug” by New York Herald critic James Bennett (Paul Sparks), a title he fully embraces. Yet to win the elite’s approval, Barnum finds a business partner in upper-class playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who gradually rejects his status in favor of literally joining the circus. While Caryle’s character feels like an amalgamation of figures the real-life Barnum worked with, Efron carries his role rather well and his romance with Anne ties in quite nicely with the film’s central theme. Just as the circus found a home for those who society deemed outsiders, prejudice still divided America as much the social classes that fuel movie Barnum’s feelings of inadequacy.
Yet each scene left me with two reoccurring questions: is this scenario true, and, if not, do I mind? At worst, biopic films tend to go the way of Patch Adams, watering down or distorting the protagonist’s actions for the sake of movie melodrama. One could easily apply this to The Greatest Showman’s decision to simplify the shadier elements of Barnum’s career, rather than analyze the nuances behind those decisions. Yet the film retains a core theme of his legacy: giving the audience a fun experience, even if the experience itself is obvious fluff. The characters might be one-dimensional, but The Greatest Showman praises their worth rather than decrying it, priding itself on what one character later described as a “celebration of humanity.” Does it take some personal liberties? Most likely, but can anyone name one circus fan that hasn’t enjoyed the show for its outright absurdity?
This, in turn, ties into the arc of Barnum himself, torn between accepting what was in front of him and the praise he desperately seeks. Jackman plays Barnum as a likable scoundrel with traces of arrogance and, like so much of The Greatest Showman, I enjoyed his performance despite acknowledging its lack of accuracy. On one side is his relationship with Charity and his kids, and the other famed European singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), someone who offers Barnum the chance to mingle with high society. Again, nothing about these performances screams “fleshed out,” but the music does enough to characterize their relationships with Barnum in a manner that audiences can understand-even if Ferguson is dubbing her lyrics.
Despite sketchiness in the narrative department, it’s the music that sold me on The Greatest Showman. The songs maintain a very modern vibe, despite taking place in the nineteenth century, but director Michael Gracey plays them up in a manner similar to Broadway. Some, like ‘Never Enough,” go for a more straightforward performance while the film’s anthem song ‘This is Me’ adopts an “inspirational emotional” feel. However, the two that stood out to me, ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Rewrite the Stars,’ present an environmental choreography that feels incredibly slick while also showcasing their actor’s performances. The latter in particular genuinely dazzled me, with Efron and Zendaya swinging about on ropes as they contemplate their social prejudice-defying “Romeo and Juliet” scenario. Not exactly subtle, but enough effort is put into the lyrics, performances and composition that I can appreciate what The Greatest Showman offers, rather than what could have been.
Rating: 3 Stars out of 5
The Greatest Showman is not a factual story about P.T. Barnum’s life, but rather a colorful and vibrant musical about his showmanship. It’s extremely romanticized and shies away from the controversial moments in his life, something that might anger or frustrate certain viewers. Nevertheless, I was willfully hoodwinked, a “sucker” who recognized that most of these events weren’t historically accurate, but nevertheless enjoyed the hell out the film’s musical numbers. In that sense, while I wouldn’t call this movie the greatest show, it definitely embodies the spirit of a P.T. Barnum spectacle.