The Greatest Showman (2017)
If you were impressed with the opening number of La La Land (2017) you will find the start of The Greatest Showman (2017) more electrifying, with more high-voltage music charging the entire film. But be warned: some will reject it for not being the original Barnum or because Hugh Jackman is not Michael Crawford or because the film plays loose with history. Ignore the naysayers: if you give in to it as pure entertainment, Showman is an original, vibrant, fast paced fantasy musical that raises the bar for the revival of this genre.
In just two musical numbers, the poor boy, P.T. Barnum, meets the well-to-do love of his life Charity, and in a seamlessly compressed time capsule, they grow up, court, elope, start a family, and he sets up a theatre in New York. Barnum turns out to be a natural self-promoter and impresario. He gathers a cast of misfits and fringe-dwellers, including a bearded lady, a dwarf, a tattooed man, the world’s fattest, tallest and strongest men; anyone who is different from society’s definition of normal. Difference attracts hatred, and critics and protesters are part of Barnum’s world, He strives for respectability by recruiting a prominent playwright and a world-class singer but suffers personal and financial setbacks that threaten the circus. Almost defeated by arson, he turns to the canvas tent and reinvents the modern-day circus. As each major scene segues into the next, it is carried forward with a musical number that weaves lyrics, rhythm, and melody to produce dramatic and emotional moments.
It is hard to not be swept away by the pace of action, spectacle, and colours of circus life. Far from the vaudeville-inspired Barnum circus music of yesteryear, Showman has the dramatic percussive beats, harmonies, and video-clip choreography of contemporary musicals that reach a new generation. The instantaneous grabbing power of “The Greatest Show”, the punch-the-air assertiveness of “This is Me”, the haunting melodies in “Never Enough”, “Million Dreams”, and “From Now On”, together with six other high-energy numbers create a soundscape that takes you beyond visual realism and into the realm of fantasy. Like all musicals, character and plot are only scaffolds for creating the bigger extravaganza of timeless ‘showbiz’. The film’s ensemble of diversity, dance, and vocal talent is perfectly matched to its objective of making you tap your feet and leaving you wanting more.
More than any other film genre, the fantasy musical is best judged on its total entertainment effect. There are themes relating to the acceptance of social outliers, pride before the fall, and redemptive healing, but this is not a sermon nor is it a factual historical adaptation. If you need an overriding message, the film’s theme song shouts unapologetic self-acceptance with “no more hiding who I want to be…this is me”. Don’t be distracted by the plasticity of personality and performance: that’s part of all show business. Above all else, this film is fun, fast, and musically delightful. In today’s world, we need more like this.
Director: Michael Gracey
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Effron, Zendaya