The Greatest Showman  can best be described as a beautiful mess. Very loosely based on the story of 19th Century showman and impresario P.T. Barnum played with flawless agility and sheer charisma by Hugh Jackman and his rise to prominence, this musical adaptation has all the right elements for a modern cinematic musical: a talented cast performing with passion and heart, energetic choreography, catchy pop songs, and lush, colorful production design and costumes. So much so that it upstages the narrative and falters in its uneven direction by first-time feature filmmaker Michael Gracey. There are flourishes of greatness here and there but never throughout which makes for an entertaining but frustrating cinematic experience.
There’s a sucker born every minute: What could have been a fascinating exploration into the remarkable life of P.T. Barnum instead settles for a simplistic rags-to-riches fairytale, opening at the height of his fame and immediately flashing back to his humble beginnings as the son of a poor tailor (Will Swenson) and how he meets well-to-do Charity Hallett. As children, they find common ground and we see them endure the trials of their love as they grow up, get married and settle into a humble life within the duration of a single song titled ‘A Million Dreams’ as we see young Barnum (Ellis Rubin) and Charity (Skylar Dunn) transform into their adult counterparts, with Charity played with comfort and charm by Michelle Williams. Charity and their two daughters are content with life because family and togetherness are all that matters, right? But for Barnum, that’s never enough. Soon he opens the American Museum in New York, filled with waxworks and stuffed animals. Tickets are slow and his daughters suggest that maybe his museum needs to have something ‘alive.’ Barnum rounds up a unique array of talented oddities: a bearded lady (Broadway vet Keala Settle), a tattooed man, a pair of Siamese twins and various other standouts who are given the opportunity to share their intriguing qualities, provided they won’t be exploited or shunned. Yet again, it’s never enough for Barnum, who surprisingly accomplishes success with ease despite the dismay of critics, the disapproval of high society and even the ire of thugs who don’t believe that people who don’t look or act like normal folk should be treated equally. What Barnum really wants is to gain the respect of the elite—that same social circle that his disapproving father-in-law (Fredric Lehne) inhabits. Barnum implores on rich playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to help him class up his show, but things start to get sticky: Carlyle gets romantically involved with Anne Wheeler, a black trapeze artist (Zendaya) that immediately hits a nerve with society and when Barnum arranges for Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), Europe’s preeminent classical soprano to tour the United States, rumors begin to surface that their relationship might be far more than simply professional. If there were any truth to the rumors, the film refuses to explore it. But Jenny Lind knows better. Her soaring aria is aptly titled ‘Never Enough,’ a bombastic pop ballad that sounds like a B-side in Sia’s last album effectively showcases Lind’s take on Barnum’s conflict. The film truly soars within the songs, because Gracey and company seem to go guns blazing with each musical number. Unfortunately, it’s when they don’t sing that emphasizes the film’s weaknesses. Yet Jackman is the driving force of the whole circus. His performance is truly mesmerizing and it's obvious he’s truly a song-and-dance man. He’s a rare find and a true movie star for the ages. Only a star of this talent can make the uneven material work to his advantage.
The Songs are the Strength: Great songs in a musical aren’t enough to make a great film, but the unstoppable songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the lyrics and won an Oscar to the lush composition of Justin Hurwitz’s songs in the far superior La La Land, and winning the Tony for the crowd-pleasing Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway know how to tell a story musically. The songs in The Greatest Showman are undeniably upbeat, tuneful and joyous, even if it occasionally strays a little too commercial-sounding; like hidden tracks from your Mom’s latest ‘Now That’s What I Call Music!’ compilation CD. It’s obvious the songs are meant to appeal to the millennial crowd with their carefully curated Spotify playlists. Where La La Land decided to stand out by honoring traditional musical styles, The Greatest Showman wants so desperately to fit in. Yet the songs work because the accompanying visuals work. Sure, the over-the-top quality of the songs gets shrill in places (thanks to reality TV vocal competitions) highlighting the need to riff and over-sing every single note, but Gracey pairs it with the same bombast. ‘This Is Me,’ performed with gusto by Keala Settle has become a pop-funk anthem for outcasts and might garner the film’s only Oscar nomination. The uptempo, 80’s-inspired ‘Come Alive’ is intensified by Ashley Wallen’s lively choreography and ‘Rewrite the Stars,’ the Pop/R&B duet between Zac Efron and Zendaya literally soars as the sequence has both characters working the trapeze ropes. Never mind that Efron and Zendaya have little chemistry; they’re flying and belting their little hearts out! The film’s true showstopper is the funky duet between Jackman and Efron involving dancing on top of bars and a plethora of whiskey-filled shotglasses So much of the film relies on the strength of the music that when the beat stops, it stops with a resounding thud. Musicals should be seamless in its interweaving within music and narrative and The Greatest Showman fails at that. That’s what’s frustrating: the music hypnotically gets us hoodwinked, but the narrative constantly points out the film’s artifice. Perhaps if Barnum were alive today, he’d want it that way.