Movies have a history in bending the truth when it comes to public figures, sometimes twisting the narrative enough for fictional purposes that the truth of the person the film is based on is lost in the process. This is something The Greatest Showman does without shame. Caught up in the glitz and glamour of the presentation, it’s easy to forget the true nature of P.T. Barnum, played charmingly by Hugh Jackman. As such, The Greatest Showman becomes hard to praise without acknowledging its faults. For musical enthusiasts such as myself, it’s easily one of the best musicals in a long while. It has a fantastic and talented cast and everything from the film’s opening to its well-choreographed scenes, production design and cinematography is akin to watching a magical Broadway show come alive onscreen. But while all that’s wonderful, the film has some problems in the portrayal of Barnum and the way it sugarcoats the treatment of its characters.
Directed by Michael Gracey, with a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, The Greatest Showman follows the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman), best known to everyone as P.T. Barnum. From childhood, Barnum wants nothing more than to make something of himself. Coming from a poor background, he’s intent from childhood to become successful no matter the cost. After marrying his childhood sweetheart, Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams), they head to New York City with big dreams. After years spent working in a shipping office, Barnum loses his job and decides to open up a museum, hiring people who have lived their whole lives being shunned and outcast by society for looking or being different–including Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), and Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). At first meant to only be a showcase turns into a show with music and feats, the performers entertaining audiences far and wide. Meanwhile, they face ridicule when not in the comfort of their own building. Seeing the potential of show business, Barnum convinces a reluctant investor named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to partner with him.
The film goes so far as to portray Barnum as someone who is all for allowing a space for the performers to prosper, away from the judging eyes of fellow New Yorkers. But it’s Barnum’s promotion of them that is, in fact, disingenuous. He seeks “real” talent in opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), while his own circus show and performers are critiqued for being fake by a local critic, providing nothing but entertainment and laughs. No one takes them seriously, even though their acts, performances, and what they look like is very much real. Even Barnum is wholly reluctant to embrace them as anything besides money-makers for a lot of the film. They are the road to his success and so while they come to feel like they’ve found belonging with each other, they’re still second-rate to Barnum’s own self-realization, with them as the vehicle.
The writing also portrays Barnum as less of an asshole type and more of a charming, passionate business and family man. It seems to work in the movie, but it’s hard to shake off the sense that the film stretched their creative license farther than needed. It might have been better to have used a completely fictional character instead. There’s also the issue of oversimplifying certain storylines to make for a happier story, with just the right touch of angst. While the women have a point of view to an extent, the film is still very much about Jackman’s and Efron’s characters. The film misses an opportunity to give Zendaya’s character a larger perspective with regards to her biracial relationship with Efron, but in a musical like this one, that’s unfortunately asking for too much.
With all the negatives out of the way, I grudgingly admit that The Greatest Showman is still a delight to watch. Having spent years in a show choir and onstage singing renditions of musical songs, I can say Michael Gracey’s film truly embodies the energy and excitement that comes from watching an actual show. Where several musicals from the last few years have failed to fully captivate, The Greatest Showman dazzles. It moves swiftly and every song, written by Dear Evan Hansen’s Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, is a showstopper. The musical numbers, paired with the choreography and overall execution of the scenes, are graceful, beautiful and infused with contended passion.This musical is eye-popping and soars, with each song one step toward a strangely satisfying end.
Hugh Jackman is on top of his game. Having given a heart-wrenching performance in Logan earlier this year, he’s a completely different person here. It’s easy to forget that Jackman is easy on his feet and can sing just as well as he can do everything else. The actor is a triple threat and his portrayal of Barnum as an ambitious, if a little obsessed with finding success, man comes off as charismatic and it’s something only he is able to pull off given the background of the story. Zac Efron, who hasn’t been seen doing anything musically inclined in a long time, falls into the role of Phillip easily. During a duet, he matches Jackman beat for beat and step for step. It’s also nice to see him in a fresh, new role like this one. Zendaya does a wonderful job in her role and fills Anne with such tenderness, while at the same time signifying that she’s been hardened by life. She and Efron have great chemistry and the first time they meet is very much meant to be a “love at first sight” scene that’s executed so nicely, it’s immediately believable.
Keala Settle as Lettie really steals the show. Outside of Barnum, she really takes command of all of the performers in the wake of their treatment by the city’s citizens and Barnum himself. Her growth is in the confidence she gains from being a part of something bigger than her and a place where she’s come to feel accepted. Michelle Williams plays the supportive wife, sharing in the dream of her husband. We don’t get to hear how her life with Barnum has affected her until much later when she gets her own solo song, and it helps in giving her more of a grounding perspective. Rebecca Ferguson as Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind is sophisticated, but elitism follows her every step of the way.
Whatever The Greatest Showman lacks, it definitely makes up for in other areas. It expects you to be dazzled and intoxicated by the spectacle and the lights. The expectation is that you’ll go along, entranced by the “greatest show.” And honestly, it’s really hard not to be taken away on this magical ride. The film intends itself to be a hopeful story with themes of acceptance and the downfalls of seeking success and ignoring the most important things in life. And, despite its obvious narrative problems and its simplistic take on storylines, the showmanship, the cast, and the songs really pull together to create a musical that’s just as bright as the lights the performers stand in.