Movie Review: The Greatest Showman

Perhaps the biggest beef that many people, and I’m included in this group, had with the film LA LA LAND is that it starred two actors who are not the best singers and dancers around. (Please stop saying that Emma Stone is a good singer! She’s not.) To compensate for their narrow vocal ranges, the songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, were rather tonally simple. Don’t believe me? Check out the soundtrack to the play Dear Evan Hansen, for which the duo won a Tony award. There’s no comparison! Now, the pair of lyricists are back for a second act, having written the music to the new film, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, starring Hugh Jackman and a host of other actors, who not only can carry a tune, they can dance up a storm too.

Very, very loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN follows the 19th century American showman from his early days as a poor orphan boy who lives on the streets selling newspapers and scamming people to earn a few pennies to becoming a name that is known around the world for family entertainment. The story covers very few truths and a whole lot of conjecture though, because the real Barnum was a complicated character who was far less altruistic than how he’s portrayed on the screen. In the film, we’re led to believe that he was motivated to fill his museum of sorts with people (“exhibits”) who have physical deformities because he saw himself in them. They were all downtrodden and shunned by society, and he wanted people to deal with them on their terms. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that this is true. Barnum was no different to a snake oil salesman who was always looking for ways to make a buck. According to the film, until he came along, no one had the audacity to put these so-called “freaks” on display but even that claim is doubtful. Travelling road shows all across America would have done the same.

The film has apparently been Jackman’s pet project since 2009 but it’s taken this long to come to the screen because no studio wanted to touch it. For some strange reason, Australian Michael Gracey was hired to direct the film. Although Gracey has plenty of experience directing commercials and is noted for his special effects wizardry, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is his first big budget film and, sadly, it shows. Outside of the song-and-dance numbers, which are great if you like foot-stomping anthems, the story can’t seem to decide what it is. Is it a tale of acceptance against all odds, as reflected in many of the song lyrics, or is it simply a showcase for Jackman’s immense talent and multi-million dollar smile? Certainly, when Jackman & Co. are singing and dancing, it’s absolute spectacle. When the music ends, however, the story falls flat. It may be that the songs were written first and the story (by TV series writer Jenny Bicks and Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Bill Condon) later because any dramatic arcs that exist last only as long as it takes to get to the next big production number. Putting the weak story and super-compressed timeline aside – and there will be plenty of people who will – the performances are solid throughout. Jackman’s talent truly is supernatural. Zac Efron (BAYWATCH) and Zendaya (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) are equally solid, though their characters and their story of cross-racial love are pure fiction. Even the third tier of performers – including Broadway actress Keala Settle, who plays the Bearded Lady – are wonderful. Settle belts out a show-stopping number entitled “This Is Me” about self-actualisation that fits the story’s “acceptance” narrative but whitewashes the reality of how really life was for these circus performers. For me, the best song is “Never Enough”, a song about never settling, sung by Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson, LIFE). While Ferguson’s performance is also brilliant, she is the only actor in the film not to be singing. Instead, she’s lip syncing to Loren Allred, who is best known for competing on Season 3 of TV’s THE VOICE. Allred may just become the next Jennifer Hudson because of this song. (The real Jenny Lind was an interesting character, who not only out-played Barnum at his own game (the film tweaks facts here too), she also gave away much of her earnings to charity.)

When the lights came up in the cinema at the screening I attended, one of my colleagues who had already bought and listened to the soundtrack music over and over again asked me what I thought of the film. I said that I thought the performances were good and the production sequences were highly enjoyable but that the in-between parts really lowered my overall rating of the film. She agreed but then added, “So what?” For her, the music was everything. I suspect she’s not alone in that feeling.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, December 28th at 8:30 am HK time!

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