THE GREATEST SHOWMAN Is Great Fun For A Cinematic Musical

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The Greatest Showman in theaters everywhere 12/20/2017.

Even Hollywood understands that there is just something special about the performance art known as “the musical.” There have been hit musical films almost as long as there have been films, period: The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Singin’ In The Rain, and most of Elvis Presley’s films involved a fair amount of singing, even if some might not regard them as musicals in the purest sense of the word. Grease was a big hit when I was young, as was The Jazz Singer. Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Hairspray, Les Misérables, La-La Land and others have garnered box office success and award nominations in recent years. This year is no exception as Australian heartthrob Hugh Jackman retires his Wolverine claws and dons a bright red coat with long tails and a dashing top hat for the role of P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman.

The film is a visual feast for the eyes. From his humble beginnings to his creation of The Greatest Show on Earth: the Barnum and Bailey Circus, Jackman and company dazzle the audience with brilliant colors and lovely sets which helps pretty much every scene crackle with energy. The supporting cast is high-energy too, which includes Zak Efron as Barnum’s protégé, the lovely Zendaya on the flying trapeze, Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady with a brilliant voice, Sam Humphrey as tom Thumb, Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind, a Swedish singer who Barnum brings to the states as a “serious” act but nearly destroys his relationship with his wife, Charity, played by Michelle Williams. Ferguson only acts her part—her singing was done by Loren Allred. Jackman is irrepressibly bombastic, but not in a bad way. He just shows great enthusiasm for his project, as anyone would if they could be free of a dull office job and instead doing something more personally fulfilling.

The show takes a few liberties with the facts, particularly where Jenny Lind is concerned, but Hollywood has never been one to let facts interfere with a good story. Despite a few conceits along the way to add dramatic tension, the catchy, memorable songs and well-practiced dance numbers had me tapping my toes on the stadium seating rail in front of me. The crew rehearsed for 10 weeks solid to really nail down the dances, stunts and circus acts, and their efforts paid off both in technical performances and in cast chemistry. The Greatest Showman garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture in a Musical or Comedy, Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for Hugh Jackman, and Best Original Song for “This Is Me,” performed by Keala Settle who is about to break out in a big way on the strength of her performance. Other notable songs on the soundtrack include “Come Alive,” featuring Jackman, Settle, Zendaya, and Daniel Everidge (who plays “the Lord of Leeds”), “Rewrite the Stars” performed by Efron and Zendaya during a thrilling high-flying stunt scene and “Never Enough,” a soaring ballad performed by the singing half of Jenny Lind, Loren Allred.

Briskly paced, visually stunning, wonderfully cast, and memorable songs that won’t wear out their welcome as fast as “Let It Go” from Frozen did, The Greatest Showman is a splendid way to spend time with your friends and relatives this holiday and it’s suitable for all ages, though there is a brawl and some thematically tense scenes to consider for the very young viewer.

However, let me take a moment to acknowledge the elephant in the room—P. T. Barnum himself. (The following is an unsolicited editorial, so if you don’t care what my opinion is regarding film critics as relates to The Greatest Showman, go have fun at the movies…with your phones off, thanks!) I’ve seen reviews from the coasts, where The Greatest Showman has had limited release already in NY and LA, crying foul. How dare director Michael Gracey attempt to cast Barnum as a sympathetic character, a visionary who sought out people with exotic medical conditions and put them on public display? Was Barnum a conman? Oh, probably. Was he exploitive? Sure, but who isn’t? You think about a blockbuster like Thor: Ragnarok which is inching closer and closer to making Marvel/Disney a billion dollars, and then you tell me Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo are overpaid? Even after paying the 1.6 million people listed in the credits they are still making mountains of cash, and it’s not even on home media yet. The NCAA, which governs all collegiate sports, makes ludicrous money on the backs--and sometime lives--of student athletes who aren’t allowed to earn income on their own. There are thousands of Division I football players let alone the athletes at lower designated schools, but only 32 student athletes in the whole nation (or 31 in years in which Minnesota never makes their pick in the first round) get to be first round picks in the NFL, where they’ll make good money until concussions and destroyed knees rob them of livelihoods and life altogether. Heck, pretty much every company pays their employees a pittance compared to their income. Amazon is worth billions, but how much does the warehouse employee that packs your order for shipment make? A pittance—mere pennies on the dollar; is that not exploitive too? Yes, Barnum exploited people for financial gain, but did they suffer unduly for it? Perhps some did suffer emotionally, but in all honesty where would a bearded lady or a dog boy or a Tom Thumb or conjoined twins find gainful employment in the 1870s? Were the animals kept to today’s standards for humane treatment? Of course not, but again, it was the 1870s and unless PETA has a time machine there’s nothing anyone can do about that now. I’m not being dismissive or insensitive, but simply pragmatic in the historical context. Barnum is often credited with coining the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but the only suckers are the ones quoting it in their reviews as a statement of fact.

You can go to the movies one of two ways: eager to be entertained or eager to find faults to appease your own misery. I avoid movies with Jack Black in them because I personally find him highly irritating. I skipped reviewing the remake of Jumanji because I knew I wouldn’t give Jack Black a fair shake. Thus I avoid stoking the fires of my own misery in regards to Mr. Black. I gave The Last Jedi a fair shake and felt completely betrayed by J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson. Unlike a Jack Black movie, I had no preconceived notions--I had not watched a trailer nor read a synopsis on Wikipedia beforehand. I savaged the film in my review because I honestly feel it’s a terribly written and poorly executed movie. I gave The Greatest Showman a fair shake and truly enjoyed the film despite knowing that the real Phineus Taylor Barnum was nowhere near the altruistic white knight portrayed here. Why? Mostly because I know the difference between musical theatre and biographic films and evidentially some critics don’t. I’d be disappointed in this film if I judged it as a pure biography, but again it’s not a documentary, it’s a musical! It’s light and cheerful and at times a little fluffy, yes, but frankly a lot of critics could use more light and cheer—on the whole we’re a rather brooding bunch, and plenty fluffy already. When somebody makes a musical film about Hitler and a studio releases it near Hanukkah, I’ll be at the front of the line of critics tearing that poor decision apart. Until then, fellow critics, have a tall glass of eggnog and enjoy The Greatest Showman for what it is rather than badmouthing it for what it was never trying to be in the first place. If you insist on being ignorant in your reviews because you don’t care for the qualities of a man who died well over a century ago and clearly have no concept of the musical as an art form, all I can say to you is, “Happy birthday, suckers!”

4.5 / 5.0