The Greatest Con: The Musical
The Greatest Showman is an odd duck of a movie. On one hand, it’s an opportunity for Hugh Jackman to once again get back to his Broadway musical days, only this time he hired (since he’s one of the producers) a cast of actors and actresses who can actually sing and dance. On the other hand, it’s story concerns P.T. Barnum being reimagined as a hero to minorities and the underclass of America in the late 19th century…which is ironic when you start reading up that he was a big promoter of minstrel shows back in the 1850s and began a hoax that there was a weed that could turn Black people white…seriously. But the songs and choreography are decent! Even if they sound like generic pop. See what I mean? It’s a film of massive contradictions, so hey, worth a talk at least.
Our main hero is P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), who wins the heart of a woman born into a rich family named Charity (Michelle Williams) despite his humble upbringing as a poor orphan. Together, P.T. and Charity have two daughters and generally a happy home, but P.T. has always yearned for his family to have more. After getting laid off from his latest job, he starts up a “museum” of odd persons with unique talents like Lettie Lutz, a singing bearded lady (Keala Settle) and Annie Wheeler, an African American trapeze artist (Zendaya). Barnum’s museum becomes a huge success, earning him and his family riches they never had before, but they are still shunned by high New York society. Indignant, Barnum teams up with a wealthy playwright named Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to get him unique acts that would appeal to the snobs, which would eventually lead P.T. to meeting the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).
While Barnum did in fact start his world famous circus venture as a museum and he eventually promoted Lind around America, this musical is a very, very loose adaptation of his life and the people surrounding him. Hell, Zac Efron’s character is supposed to be inspired by James Bailey, Barnum’s famous partner, and was oddly not called by that name in the production. Which does raise the question of why call Hugh Jackman’s character P.T. Barnum at all, especially when he’s depicted as giving minorities gainful employment while the world shuns them; when the real Barnum a complicated man that promoted hoaxes and unsavory depictions of Black people while also being staunchly anti-slavery. The story of Barnum would make more sense in the vein of a dark comedy, not a musical chock full of bubblegum pop music.
Well I’m being a little mean about the music…and slightly hypocritical. The songs are actually pretty decent and I even downloaded two of them, including “This is Me” which just won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture. But I do have to say that, save for two intimate songs, almost the entire soundtrack is composed of anthem-like music where the entire cast is giving a show-stopping number. It is curious that, since the majority of the songs all sound like major numbers, the film doesn’t have a nice ebb-and-flow of soft and hard songs like you see in most musicals. Hell, even La La Land knew how to pull this off pretty well, and I mention this movie in particular because the song writing team of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek who won Oscars last year for their songs in that film also wrote the music for The Greatest Showman.
But while the songs range from catchy to generic, the choreography is pretty solid all around. All the dance numbers look and sound great especially coming from a first-time director by the name of Michael Gracey, who has primarily worked as a special effects artist before this movie. To his credit, he’s far more interested in swinging the camera around to get in close with each actor as opposed to Damien Chazelle’s method in La La Land to film everything from a wide angle in the style of the old Hollywood musicals. It makes for a far more dynamic experience, but because it’s done all the time, it gets a little over-simulated here and there. Not as crazy as Moulin Rouge mind you, which went overboard with the style to its strength AND weakness. But all the music bits are nonetheless entertaining enough to watch that I forgive the strange factor of the story choices enough.
This mostly comes down to the team Jackman assembled is pretty top notch. I should clarify that Jackman didn’t direct this, but he did invest his own money into the project and even influenced his buddy director, James Mangold, from Logan to handle the post-production process. So he managed to bring in several actors who can carry a tune and dance extremely well like Zac Efron and Zendaya, both of which did very well in convincing everyone they are both triple threats. But the big standout from the cast is a woman named Keala Settle, a Broadway regular who is trying to break into the film industry, who has a gorgeous voice with a wide range. Hell, the producers gave her the big selling musical number of this film, “This is Me,” and she truly knocked it out of the park. Although I am disappointed that Rebecca Ferguson did not actually sing her big song, as the voice was really a singer named Loren Allred. No idea why the producers felt the need to dub over her voice, but I at least appreciate watching a musical where everyone can sing quite well…unlike friggin’ Les Miserables or Mamma Mia!
However, while the song numbers and the performances of said songs are really worth the price of admission, nothing much else in this movie really grabs you. The character work is basically nonexistent for much of the cast save for Jackman’s Barnum; and with the knowledge of the real-life historical figure, it makes it somewhat awkward to watch. And the film’s insistence on using big, explosive numbers constantly leaves very little room to appreciate any of these characters in an already pretty short movie at an hour and 35 minutes. Could have been improved in the script department, especially from the likes of Bill Condon who previously worked on Dreamgirls…but then again he also worked on Beauty and the Beast (2017), so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised the writing is a bit of a mess.
Still, if you’re in the mood for a light-hearted musical, you can do a hell of a lot worse, so I’ll give this a high…
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