Film Review: The Greatest Showman

Eager-to-please musical about the struggles of pioneering impresario P.T. Barnum will have devotees and detractors.
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The movie musical has made somewhat of a comeback in the 21st century, with box-office hits (and sometime award winners) like the Broadway adaptations Chicago, Dreamgirls, Mamma Mia!, Sweeney Todd and Les Misérables. But original movie musicals are a rarer species: The 2000s have brought us Moulin Rouge (not so original with its recycled pop songs), the animated blockbuster Frozen, the intimate Once, and last year’s almost-Best Picture, La La Land. The latter was equally beloved and reviled, and the same divided reactions will likely greet The Greatest Showman, the ambitious, go-for-broke musical gloss of the life of impresario P.T. Barnum, with songs from the fecund La La Land/Dear Evan Hansen team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

“This is the greatest show!” blares the cast in the opening number and, dammit, they’re going to overexert every muscle to get you to agree. Though the film is set in the mid-1800s, it takes the anachronistic Moulin Rouge route of conveying its show-biz origin tale with a decidedly modern, decidedly pop sensibility. Call it the Hamilton effect: How else are you going to deliver a young audience to an American history lesson? The fluffy songs would be right at home on a Katy Perry album, but as earworms they do their job.

So does Hugh Jackman, who is charismatically ideal casting for the role of a dynamo like Barnum, the poor son of a Connecticut tailor whose drive and imagination led him to a literally sensational career in New York City as the founder of a museum specializing in exotic displays, including live attractions like bearded ladies, tiny “General” Tom Thumb and the Siamese twins Chang and Eng. In pursuit of a higher-class clientele, he also recruited Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind and made her an American superstar.

Jenny Bick and Bill Condon’s screenplay is not a faithful retelling of Barnum’s life: His chaste (at least here) relationship with Lind may or may not have put a strain on his marriage to his devoted, moneyed wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), and scorn for his family of “oddities” may or may not have sparked the fire that engulfed his grand museum. (In fact, Barnum had not one but two establishments destroyed by fire.) The script also fabricates a business partner for Barnum, Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a well-to-do theatrical producer who runs away to the circus (and an interracial romance with a trapeze artist played by the singer Zendaya). That daring relationship is but one facet of the movie’s underlined and bold-faced 21st-century message of acceptance of society’s outcasts.

There’s nothing subtle about The Greatest Showman, but its high style and relentless energy may very well seduce willing audience members. Australian commercials director Michael Gracey makes a confident feature debut, abetted by the craft of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) and especially production designer Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk, The Dark Knight). Jackman, Williams, Efron and Zendaya are all up for the challenges of their big numbers (with Zendaya and Efron outdoing Pink on their trapeze duet), and big-voiced Keala Settle as bearded lady Lettie Lutz stops the show with the Golden Globe-nominated “This Is Me.” And Rebecca Ferguson makes a stunning and elegant Jenny Lind, even if her powerhouse singing is dubbed by Loren Allred.

Sort of like John Stephens pre-emptively labeling himself a “Legend,” The Greatest Showman insists that you’ll have a great time. If its immodesty doesn’t seem too irksome, you just might.

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