Hollywood’s long history of live-action musicals never really has gone away. It always seems that there’s been a lull between your last favorite and the next one to come along but when you look back, there’s always been one every few years. Now for the third holiday season in five years we have another one unwrapping in The Greatest Showman from 20th Century Fox. Based on the life and rise to prominence (or infamy, depending on where you happen to personally view things) of one Phineas Taylor Barnum, the founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Played to the hilt by Hugh Jackman (who happened to also play the lead back in the 2012 version of Les Miserables), it puts a noble spin on Barnum’s showmanship and business dealings. His motivation for using human curiosities is shown as a combination of a means to a business end (people would rather come see live oddities than wax figures) as well as a social one to encourage acceptance of those different than his audience. His audience and critics are all very aware that his performances are far more often frauds than genuine articles, however as he notes, the performance may be a fraud, but the smiles on the audience are not.
For those familiar with Barnum’s historical story, many of the names are right, but timelines and happenings are wildly conflated. A major character conflict for Barnum with the famed singer Jenny Lind is fabricated for the film. And Jackman at the time of filming is more than 12 years younger than when Barnum went into show business. And his exploits with his performers greatly gilded. In the film he meets with the dwarf Tom Thumb when Tom was 22, while the real Tom began working for the showman at the age of 5.
So if you’re going into the film with a hope for some history lessons, it can’t even be said to represent the Cliff Notes of Barnum’s story. Perhaps calling it a representation of the chapter headings might be more apt. As with last year’s La La Land, the film is presented with the feeling of a nostalgic fairy tale. There are idillic dance sequences on rooftops under an impossibly large full moon; there are costume combinations and dance moves which would generally fit better on a group number on So You Think You Can Dance than in the 1870s. If you go into it knowing what you’re getting into, and just embrace it for the modern live-action fairytale musical that it is, then you’ll likely have a grand time.
From the show’s opener and refrain, The Greatest Show which is a kicker of an opener to the self-empowerment anthem This is Me, the story is not subtle. It’s about outcasts coming together to find family and to beat back the big cruel world (and to make some $ along the way). The music is generally toe tappy, however it seems like nearly every song could have used some editing for the film. By the end of it’s 105 minutes of running time one begins to not look forward to another song starting because you know it’ll take another full 3-4 minutes to get through. When you’re in the midst of a musical, the last thing you want is your audience not looking forward to each next song.
Better editing on the film music and then leaving it full length for the soundtrack album would have made for a better and tighter experience all around.
The film has long been a passion project for Jackman, with it having been first announced as in development back in 2009. It’s been cited that much of the long development time was because studios still hadn’t been ready to take the leap with the story as a musical. It can’t be fully said that La La Land’s success was what helped this film get made, since principal photography had already begun on Greatest Showman nearly two full months before La La Land had opened.
Jackman is clearly having a blast in the role and when he as Barnum is in the center ring, he plays it for all that his trademarked mischievous grin can muster. His voice is if anything better here than it was in Les Miserables. High School Mustical’s Zac Efron plays Phillip Carlyle, a fictitious young actor from a wealthy and respectible family who Barnum wants to recruit into his show to be his co-ringmaster in training.
The film was directed by newcomer Michael Gracey from a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the songs and Ashley Wallen created the choreography.
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