"The Greatest Showman" Reminds Us Why We Go to the Movies
The Greatest Showman and I have had an interesting history. When I first heard about it, it was my most anticipated movie of 2017. Then I saw the first trailer and was off-put by the pop nature of the soundtrack. This wasn't what I expected from the lyricists of La La Land! Nevertheless, I couldn't not be interested in a movie musical with Hugh Jackman, and it still remained, with hesitation, in my list of anticipation, though, like many movies that end up on that list, I probably was going to end up missing. My friends convinced me otherwise. I'm glad they did.
From the opening edits, we know we're in for something unique. Era-appropriate title cards list the credits, cut between the awesome excitement of the circus ring in contemporary song. This is the kind of anachronism we see in a Baz Luhrman film, like The Great Gatsby or Moulin Rouge! Before we can object to this, circus king P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) croons: "Don't fight it, it's comin' for you, runnin' at ya. It's only this moment; don't care what comes after." Before I knew it, I was immersed in the euphoric explosion of color and song and wasn't shaken out of it until the end.
Now perhaps intentional or not, the film is true to the spirit of Barnum. The film celebrates the man who "created show business" and the familial community he helped create through his circus, while also showing some downfalls in his practices, specifically his obsession with being accepted by the higher classes at the expense of his family and his acts. However, several accounts dispute the authenticity of major elements of this story and its characters (Bailey doesn't even appear in this film, replaced by Zac Efron's fictional playwright Phillip Carlyle), so much so that in later press interviews, Jackman has clarified that the film is merely inspired by Barnum's story. Since its release in December, I've no longer seen it referred to as a biopic due to its liberties. Yet almost self-referentially, Jackman's Barnum tells a theatre critic (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire), "Hyperbole isn't the worst crime . . . Those smiles aren't fake. It doesn't matter where they come from. The joy is real."
Maybe he's right.
The story was never going to be the most important part of this film (unlike, say, with La La Land) as it is the music, the performances, the meaningful themes, and the cinematic qualities that run this ship. And they are captivating. Pasek and Paul, straight off of an Oscar win for La La Land and a Tony win with Dear Evan Hansen, deliver even more tremendous numbers. I always doubt their use of pop flair and seemingly simple lyrics, but yet I'm always blown away by how effective and moving they end up being. They match perfectly with the energy of the cast, the colors of the costumes and sets, and the sweeping nature of the camera. At one point, my audience started clapping and I almost joined in.
A case could be made for most every song as the best in the whole film, but standouts for me are the opening "The Greatest Show," the fast-forward-through-time song "A Million Dreams," and the anthem of the piece, "This Is Me." "This Is Me," which has rightfully been earning numerous nominations, is led by Broadway veteran Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady. Throughout the film, she is a stand out among the fresh faces that make up Barnum's circus, but once this anthem of being yourself begins, she nearly steals the show. Her passion and emotion exude past her prosthetics and almost made me tear up. She's stunning and so is everyone else, such as Efron and Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who have proven they will have bountiful careers after leaving the Disney Channel, and Michelle Williams, who shows she can still have fun after the emotional performance in All the Money in the World. (What else needs to be said about Hugh?)
At face value, this is a movie about the origins of the circus. A critical eye may call it shameful to not explore the real Barnum, decrying changes to certain characterizations and story beats. I say this is the spectacle we go to the movies for. What is in this film is what you can only get through cinema: actors singing while doing impossible acrobatics, actors riding trains that don't exist, set changes that involve some technical trickery I don't understand. This is movie magic. So no, this is not a movie about the circus. This is a celebration of entertainment as personal expression. And perhaps I am a bit biased, but it proves to me why film is "The Greatest Show."