The Greatest Showman (2017)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Greatest Showman</strong> (2017)

(On Cable TV, October 2018) Don’t tell anyone else on the internet, but I have a special place in my cinephile’s heart for the kind of big brash musicals that Hollywood almost doesn’t make any more. From the get-go, The Greatest Showman sets high expectations with an eye-popping circus-and-dance number that clearly tells us that we’re not going to watch an attempt at mimetic realism. Hugh Jackman is known for his singing and dancing prowess on-stage, but little of this ever made it on the big screen until now. (let’s forget about Les Misérables…) Fortunately, The Greatest Showman makes the best use of his affable persona in telling a highly romanced version of P. T. Barnum’s life story. Most movies reflect the obsessions and values of their times, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that a 2017 retelling of Barnum’s life would focus on themes of anti-discrimination and empowerment, ennobling those who—in earlier days—would have been presented as freaks. Nobody will be surprised to learn that the real-life Barnum was far more complex than the amiable huckster-who-learns-better from the movie—after all, much like Barnum’s marks, we’re here for the show and what’s a little mutually agreed-upon film-flammery if we’re decently entertained? It helps that the musical numbers are usually as broad and brash as the film requires—I particularly liked “The Other Side” with its synchronized use of diegetic sounds in a context that goes from reality to fantasy in a blink, and, of course, both “The Greatest Show” as meant to be the marquee song and “This is me” as the power empowerment ballad. Jackman is great in the title role, fully able to do the big song-and-dance routines he was pining for. Michelle Williams is adequate in a supporting role, although Zac Efron proves better than expected in a role that, after all, goes back to his teenage-heartthrob musical roots. Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya and Keala Settle all seize their chance to shine in smaller roles. We can certainly quibble about the deviations from the historical record (or should we, given the film’s clear and early refusal to be realistic?) and the way that a proudly diverse cast ends up validating a white businessman’s life, but the film works really well in its chosen musical genre. At barely 105 minutes, The Greatest Showman focuses on the razzle-dazzle more than that rather simplistic plot and it works well enough to sustain the film. Director Michael Gracey does well in his first feature film. During the credit sequence, pay attention to the corners of the title cards for extra jokes.

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