Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The Greatest Showman (2017) - Movie Review

The plot: P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), after being laid off from his job, has stumbled onto an idea. He decides to create a show for children of all ages, comprised of the many peculiarities of the world. As his show gets off the ground and New York is shown such oddities as the pint-size General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), the bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya), Barnum starts to lose sight of why he is in “show business” in the first place. Will he stick by his co-stars and his family, or will the spotlight drive to the very people he set out to disrupt?

It will never not be a delight seeing Hugh Jackman in his element like this. The way he takes command with every movement during the show-stopping numbers, combined with his always-reliable singing chops, makes for a central presence that ends up becoming more interesting than the actual character behind it all. Same goes for Zac Efron, further showing his skill as a triple threat in how he fits in right alongside the rest of the cast to help drive it forward. Keala Settle is fan-bloody-tastic here as Lettie, and I can only hope her getting the single best song of the entire show is a sign of good things to come because we could certainly more of this kind of energy on-screen.
Zendaya works very nicely, even if her chemistry with Efron is a tad suspect, Williams is okay but nothing all that outstanding as Barnum's wife, Ferguson gives a solid presence on-screen but Loren Allred as her singing voice is definitely rough around the edges as the opera singer Jenny Lind, and Sam Humphrey as General Tom Thumb… I feel stupid giving credit for something like this, but well done actually giving a smaller actor the role. Knowing how wonky the special effects can get here, I shudder to think of them trying to make the character work through computer trickery around a passing actor.

This is director Michael Gracey’s first feature film, although you might not have guessed that just by looking at it. Gracey and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey show a lot of pomp and circumstance with how they frame the musical numbers, striking a very nice balance between the inherent proximity of cinema with the wide-open grandeur of the stage. It’s nice seeing a movie musical that knows enough to actually let us see the choreography at work, and between the seven credited editors on the film, we’re allowed to drink it all in. To say nothing of the actual music, composed by industry legends John Debney and Joseph Trapanese who incorporate so many separate elements and galvanise them together as to create an incredibly riveting soundscape.
Then there’s the actual songs themselves, written by Pasek and Paul fresh off their (depending on who you ask) triumph or tragedy that is La La Land… and the words themselves are honestly a mixed bag. The Greatest Show is a terrific show-starter, The Other Side allows Jackman and Efron to show a surprising amount of synergy in their collective performance, and the centerpiece This Is Me is quite astounding in how much raw power and heart lies within. Hell, even with my misgivings about the delivery, Never Enough packs quite a punch.

I sure hope all of this sounds appealing to you because, beyond the musical spectacle, this is remarkably plain in terms of story. The cast are really giving it their all here, but it’s all in service to characters that are quite shallow and exist mainly as pieces to shuffle around the stage during the songs; outside of them, they’re little more than puffs of smoke. Taking joy in the art of performing is about as deep as we get as far as character motivation, with only lip service to more resonating ideals buried underneath a lot of schmaltz and “feel, don’t think” storytelling. Barnum may possess the title of The Greatest Showman, but we could’ve benefited from knowing more of the man than the show. From what we are shown, his arc is an embarrassingly standard rags-to-riches story, hitting every beat you would expect from such a premise. As a result, despite how much of the figurative and literal spotlight he takes up, he comes across far less interesting than pretty much everyone else around him… and even then, those around him aren’t that fleshed out either.

There’s definite discussions to be had when it comes to ‘the freak show’; the sources of entertainment that consist of those that people are more likely to stare at than look in the eye. Hell, there’s something to be said about how this is a story about the outcasts of society, and most of the focus is given to one man’s mission against the upper class. But that would be taking away how much representation means to those within minority groups. Earlier in the year, I managed to catch a special Q&A screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the film’s director and Aussie theatre legend Jim Sharman in attendance. During the pre-amble, he mentioned that he grew up in sideshow crowds and showgrounds, something he saw as the prelude to what would become the social activism scene of today.
And honestly, watching this film, I can get where he’s coming from. These spectacles, as perverse as the world decreed them for numerous and often-conflicting reasons, gave these people voice and presence. No matter how much the ruling class wanted to keep these freaks, these abominations, these things are not them hidden away, these shows gave them a chance to say “This is me”. This is why Settle’s performance here wowed me as much as it did, and why This Is Me is such a good musical centrepiece: Because, even if for the briefest of moments, it showed that same sense of affirming that there is a place in the world for these people. Representation matters, and while it may not be accurate to the historical records of Barnum himself, this film shows why. They are people, living, breathing and feeling people, who want the world to see them as the human beings that they are regardless of what makes them "different". Whether it's genetics or culture… or social class… or sexuality… or race… A hundred years later, and we’re still fighting that same battle.

All in all, for as much as this defines ‘light entertainment’ in how meatless a lot of the story is, I still have a rather sizeable place in my heart for this film. The acting benefits from getting those who (mostly) actually have theatrical and musical experience to pull off both jobs, the visuals are grand when we’re not looking at rather conspicuous CGI work, the dance choreography is lively and energetic and the music itself ranges from toe-tapping to genuinely heart-moving. A shame that all this isn’t in service to an actually gripping story or compelling characters but, honestly, I don’t have that much of a problem with that. People who went to P.T. Barnum’s circus didn’t go for ground-breaking social critique; they went for the spectacle, and in that sense, this film still works.

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