P.T. Barnum always said that the key to his success in presenting the world the wildly extraordinary is that there was “a sucker born every minute.” The story of his life has arrived on the big screen from 20th Century Fox in the form of an electric movie musical starring Hugh Jackson (Logan) as the legendary circus founder and self-proclaimed man who invented show business. For those of us who enjoy the high-octane musical, are we merely one of those “suckers” or does The Greatest Showman go deeper?
The show-starting number, The Greatest Show, teases us as to what will be, but not how it always was for the son of a tailor. Before long, it’s high-flying melodies and soaring dream-aspiring lyrics come crashing down to the depressing confines of Barnum’s youth. His fancy for a rich man’s daughter is also teased in an entertaining and efficient means of establishing backstory for the future Mr. and Mrs. P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams).
The songs are sensational, but what makes them so rich is how many of their melodies return in different form later in the picture and provide an emotional thread that seamlessly intertwines the entire tale. The best musicals utilize this plot connective device and although The Greatest Showman is not quite in that echelon of cinema musical theater, it certainly adds numerous layers of richness to a story that lacks it in parts.
Among the astounding, bring the house down, tracks is the makes-you-want-to-shoot-for-the-heavens Come Alive — angelically delivered by Jackman and Williams — and it will cause a physiological response from many, we promise. Never Enough, sang by Rebecca Ferguson, in a track that seems to be a powerful indictment of Barnum’s aspirations and the price that that fault cost him personally.
Barnum was often called a purveyor of deceit. Some may see The Greatest Showman as suffering from the same ailment. Yes, he exploited the people that made him rich. But, he also elevated them to a life they never could have enjoyed or experienced without his aspirations. Debut director Michael Gracey has crafted a film that does not paint the ringmaster as a righteous individual to be held up as a saver of souls, It also spotlights someone who held his own ambitions above everything else, except maybe his family. Some may misconstrue these character traits and their portrayal as celebrating a soul who should not be portrayed at all in popular culture, circa 2017.
The song This Is Me takes that criticism and smacks it right in the mouth. It puts it all right in perspective.
When Barnum’s cast of so-called freaks realizes that his inviting them into his tent of success may have its limits, bearded lady (Keala Settle) takes control of the situation and with the chorus of the show behind her sings, “I am not a stranger to the dark, hide away, ‘cause we don’t want your broken parts… I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars. But, I won’t let them break me down to dust, I know that there’s a place for us… I am brave. I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be… This is me.” This one of the great self-affirmation movie moments of 2017.
Timing is everything in a musical as well when it comes to songs and when the lyrics take over the storytelling. At certain points of the story, it’s a moment that is as magical as movies can promise. That is This Is Me… and several other tracks on this soundtrack, including Rewrite the Stars and From Now On.
Jackson is his usual song and dance delightful self. The Australian was born to play the American showman and his innate panache is pitch perfect. Yes, it is his movie as much of it lies on his broad shoulders. But the ensemble too has many moments to steal the spotlight. Williams loses herself in the role as Barnum’s better half, Charity. Zac Efron returns to the movie genre that spawned his career and shows that he has grown in leaps in bounds as a performer. Zac, you’re forgiven for Baywatch after what you gave us with The Greatest Showman. Then, there is the twin towers of fierce female-dom in the form of Ferguson’s Jenny Lind and Zendaya’s high flying Anne Wheeler.
How good is the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman? What the film lacks in character development over the course of its non-singing moments, it makes up for quite quickly with a melody. See, a character evolution can be achieved inside a single rousing musical number. But, that is the nature of the trope and it is utilized quite often in the dramatic forward movement of Gracey’s movie. With his eye-popping visuals as an accompaniment, it is just enough to serve as enough for us to connect with each one of the souls onscreen in a manner that draws us in and never lets us go. All involved should thank song lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land).
“The noblest art is that of making others happy,” said Barnum of his show. He said that while confronting critics who labeled him as a fraud and fanner of the societal repulsive fire. Fitting then, that the film that celebrates his dreams does exactly that. The Greatest Showman is selling joy and audiences should line up to buy it, just like they did for his Greatest Show on Earth.