The Greatest Showman


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The Greatest Showman
"The style is confused" | Photo: 20th Century Fox

What makes a musical? Is La La Land a musical? Some say yes. Some say no. Is Chicago a musical? Everyone says yes. What's the difference? That, my friend, is the question.

The Greatest Showman slips between the cracks, neither one thing nor the other. Essentially a parody on the life of P T Barnum who created the big top circus extravaganzas in the 19th century as well as a whole lot of other things, like politics and publishing, which are not mentioned here.

Copy picture

To simplify an extraordinary life the film sticks to the barest essentials. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) was born poor (not true), fell in love with Charity (Michelle Williams) from the right side of the tracks, made a small fortune with a freak show and later invested in a nation wide tour with the Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

There are issues. The first is the old chip-on-shoulder complex. The second is treating odd people with respect. The third is going off piste while married. The fourth is fitting in the songs and finding space for big dance numbers.

The best musicals have style. Reality, as you live it, should be left outside the screen door. The devastating Frankie and Johnny routine in the night club between Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse at the end of The Band Wagon would never have worked without an element of make believe. The film version of Les Miserables failed because the politics of poverty kept punching you on the nose. Singin' In The Rain and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers never touched the ground and for that reason are considered classics. Musicals fuel the dream. They don't throw cold water over it.

Whenever Barnum is about to have a serious chat with his wife he finds a song coming on. Whenever the bearded lady begins her rant about conditions in the Museum of Freaks the rest of the corps de weird whack you in the face with a scintillating knees up.

The style is confused. There is serious stuff here, like social prejudice and class deformity. The songs sound samey which is not unusual for middle-of-the-road compositions and yet the performances have brio. Jackman can sing. You know that from his Broadway experience. But, more important, or in this case less important, he can act. He gives Barnum a life beyond the musical when what you want is Gene Kelly on the streets of Paris being ridiculously optimistic.

Talking of pleasure, Ferguson's first appearance on stage as Jenny Lind, filmed from behind, is like the sun after a summer storm. Her voice has the clarity of crystal.

If only...(sigh)

Reviewed on: 22 Dec 2017
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The Greatest Showman packshot
Musical celebration of PT Barnum's life as salesman, circus promoter, freak show entrepreneur, producer and show biz risk taker in 19th century America
Amazon link

Director: Michael Gracey

Writer: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon

Starring: Hugh Jackman. Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson

Year: 2017

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, US


EIFF 2018
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