Many films are a “guilty pleasure,” entertainment you know you shouldn’t like and that you certainly wouldn’t admit to liking in mixed company. It’s more rare, however, when a film appears on the scene that blows that definition out of the water, a film that you not only wouldn’t admit to liking in mixed company, but one that you struggle to admit to yourself that you liked.
The lavish 2017 musical The Greatest Showman is that film, plain and simple. Far from great – with paper-thin characters, a simplistic story, repetitive music and an unsavory dose of historical revisionism – the movie is fueled almost single-handedly by three or four truly great tunes and the enormous charisma of Hugh Jackman. These positives compensate amazingly for The Greatest Showman’s many flaws, pushing me to issue it a stamp of approval, a fact that has caused me one or two dark nights of the soul.
I’m a huge sucker for musicals. Despite the genre’s inherent camp, all it takes is for someone to start crooning a catchy tune to get me hooked. In fact, there are very few movie musicals that have been produced in the past 20 or so years that I’ve profoundly disliked, with the possible exception being Rob Marshall’s woefully misguided Nine. Basically, my thoughts and feelings on the genre can be summed up in a lyric from one of Moulin Rouge’s most famous songs, Come What May: “I will love you until my dying day.”
Despite blindly loving the music in musicals, I am sober enough to recognize that many of the genre’s recent entries – such as 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera, 2005’s Rent and 2007’s Hairspray – aren’t necessarily great works of art. They are guilty pleasures through and through, and I watch them with a strangely dichotomous sensibility. I know they’re kind of shit, but that doesn’t stop me from humming along and tapping my toe like I have a lobotomy or, at the very least, a nervous tick.
The Greatest Showman falls firmly within this crop of musicals but takes it even further. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, and with songs by the celebrated lyricists of La La Land (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), The Greatest Showman tells a comically abridged, historically inaccurate version of the life of P.T. Barnum, the infamous co-founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. We first meet Barnum (played as an adult by the truly wonderful Hugh Jackman) during the film’s opening number (“The Greatest Show”). The circus is already up and running, and Barnum is having a fucking ball singing, dancing and hurling himself around the ring. Then the film flashes back to cover his boyhood, a charmless, 19th century existence that heavily trades in Dickensian stereotypes.
The son of a poor tailor, one of the few bright spots in young Barnum’s gloomy, poverty-stricken, “Ello gov’na” life is his friendship with Charity (played by Michelle Williams as an adult), the daughter of one of Barnum’s father’s rich, blue-blood clients. The two maintain a friendship throughout their early years and eventually marry, much to the chagrin of Charity’s uppity father, who looks at Barnum as nothing more than a lazy lubber. Charity and Barnum’s married life together is simple yet deliriously happy, emotion encapsulated in the song “A Million Dreams,” which sees the pair whirling around on a New York City rooftop with near suicidal abandon. They have two daughters, and Barnum works as a clerk to support his growing family. Yet Barnum finds himself not entirely satisfied with being a simple paper-pusher and family man; the “million dreams” from his earlier song with Charity prove to not be enough. He needs a million and one.
Opportunity arrives when Barnum is laid off from his job. He launches a career in show business, opening “Barnum’s American Museum,” a space highlighting wax models, and then the “Barnum Circus,” showcasing living oddities like Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a bearded lady; Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), a dwarf; and Fedor Jeftichew (Luciano Acuna Jr.), a young man with hypertrichosis who Barnum dubs “The Dog Boy.” Yet even though his circus becomes a hit, Barnum is still not fulfilled. He craves the approbation of the city’s cultured elite, partnering with Zac Efron’s wealthy Phillip Carlyle to help legitimize his show and staging an American tour for European opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). These two decisions introduce new complexities into the Barnum bandwagon, with the later even jeopardizing aspects of the showman’s personal and professional life.
There is a lot going on in The Greatest Showman, which makes the empty feeling it generates all the more glaring. Questions of class, race and entertainment are, no pun intended, raised yet ultimately just danced around. In interviews for the film, Hugh Jackman spoke at length of how Barnum was responsible for creating an entirely new form of entertainment, suggesting that the showman could be credited with giving the Gilded Age its own pop culture. Yet the film never elaborates on the mechanisms for how Barnum accomplished this, if he actually did. Similarly, the forbidden (for the time) romance that develops between Efron’s Carlyle and Anne Wheeler (played by Zendaya), an African-American trapeze artist, never gets past the inspirational, let’s “stick it to em'” phase. It largely dismisses the brutal realities that an interracial couple would have confronted at this point in time, such as the fact that interracial marriage wasn’t even fully legal in the United States until 1967.
Characterization is also not one of The Greatest Showman’s strong suites, with most of the story’s figures being treated as ideas rather than real people. Such a superficial approach is present in secondary characters like Carlyle and Wheeler, not to mention Williams’ Charity, who is utterly wasted. Perhaps more troubling for a film that wants to espouse idealistic ideas about inclusion and tolerance, however, is the treatment of the story’s “human oddities.” None of them, aside from perhaps Settle’s Lettie, are given anything resembling a voice or agency. Yet even her big number, the Golden Globe-winning song “This is Me,” feels like a cop-out, an empowering paean that doesn’t actually prefigure the start of a real character arc.
The one exception is unsurprisingly Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum. A relentless capitalist, loving father and self-destructive dreamer, Barnum is a dynamic character, and Jackman plays him with his customary zeal and 100% commitment. He also is pretty great as a song and dance man. Although many with a trained ear have characterized Jackman’s singing in Les Miserables and now The Greatest Showman as questionable, I personally find him fantastic. He is able to carry a tune and project raw emotion on par with other terrific movie musical performances (such as Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd) but with much greater vocal power.
This is a huge boon to The Greatest Showman, as a musical is only as good as its songs. There is significant variation, however, in the overall quality of this particular musical’s songs. After the first half-dozen or so, a feeling of repetition sets in, an expectation that another inspirational power anthem is just around the corner. This also applies to how the film’s director, Michael Gracey, stages the different numbers. With a few exceptions, such as the inventive “Rewrite the Stars,” far too many of the songs are carried out in the brightly lit mosh pit of the circus ring. And there is no consistency in the film’s overall vision. There are traces of better musicals in the staging of The Greatest Showman, especially Moulin Rouge and Chicago, but there is no aesthetic through line, just chaos.
And yet, despite the film’s overall slightness, not to mention its infantile handling of complex themes, there are moments within The Greatest Showman that had me enraptured in a way that only a well-functioning movie musical can. The film features a handful of songs that work on all levels, songs that advance the particulars of story and character, convey a strong sense of emotion and are pulled off with technical aplomb.
One of those is the love song “Rewrite the Stars,” another is the pool hall ditty “The Other Side,” and the final one is the climactic number “From Now On.” All of these songs convey a sense of grandeur, of subjective emotional experiences being externalized and made manifest in the larger world. These songs, especially when paired with Jackman’s boundless charisma and clear passion for the material, help stave off The Greatest Showman’s nearly constant flirtation with pure camp and cheese. They deliver a blast of pure, idealistic and emotional fun, and they even help you almost forget that the real story of P.T Barnum is also one of racism, of greed, of exploitation, of deranged hoaxes such as the Fiji Mermaid, of helpless beluga whales being boiled alive in the man’s nightmarish indoor aquarium.
They almost do this. Because after the music fades, you’re left with the awareness that you’ve celebrated unabashed historical revisionism and a man who was, by several accounts, often quite the little fucker. You’re also left with the gnawing sensation of kinda, sorta liking a movie that really shouldn’t be that likable. And lastly, you’re left to battle feelings of ambivalence. These are born out of the fact that, despite the film making you feel unclean; despite it making you want to go on a steady, cinematic diet of art cinema; despite it making you want to shout to someone, anyone that you “have good taste,” you also kinda, sorta can’t wait to see it again.