For a flash of lush, bright and melodic, poetic pop romanticism, nix the season’s Star Wars mumbo jumbo and opt for entertaining escapism stocked with good-looking idealists singing, dancing and performing in Fox’s gorgeous and spectacular The Greatest Showman. This is the season’s tonic of cheerful optimism to offset the dark, mediocre, macabre movies this fall and winter.
The songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, 2016’s best movie, La La Land), whose songwriting gets better with every project, power and occasionally outshine the story with percussive, propulsive music. Strong melodies, more meaningful and memorable than the songs in Coco and Moana, serve the material, though the smooth staging takes getting used to. So, it’s best to arrive early, sit back and go with it. This is a simple story about a man who wants to put on a show and make audiences happy, so don’t expect religion, ghosts, monsters and hardship, loss and misery lurking beneath the surface.
It’s neither as polished and tight as La La Land nor as brilliant as the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals, such as Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, though philosophically The Greatest Showman, written by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks, is as unabashedly romantic as Oklahoma! This alone makes the movie a remarkable achievement in today’s rotten culture. It’s enough to make you want to forgive the fast-moving film its artificiality, flaws and lack of characterization. Circus performers, animal acts and other plot details get short shrift. Someone in the circus sings a reference to a clown but I didn’t see a single clown in the show.
But what a show. The screen bursts with color, light and striking visual scenes of song, dance and action. This idealized version of P.T. Barnum’s life is a marvelous depiction of early 20th century America and, like a repudiation of The Shape of Water, Americanism. Director Michael Gracey has a grand, lavish and cinematic sensibility. His filming of Michelle Williams as Mrs. Barnum is a wonder from every angle. The same goes for his scenes of Zendaya’s acrobatic tease of love interest Zac Efron (New Year’s Eve, High School Musical, Charlie St. Cloud) in an interracial romantic subplot, which works despite an obvious age gap. Efron’s return to the musical is both a departure from his glut of dumb hunk movie roles and something of a reminder of his natural song and dance talent. His duet with leading man Hugh Jackman (Prisoners) as Barnum, “The Other Side”, is magnificent.
“Comfort is the enemy of progress,” Barnum counters Efron’s wealthy producer character, persuading him to trade as a partner in the burgeoning circus and The Greatest Showman‘s assets include an affirmative pairing of same sex business partners, for a change, leading to one of the film’s most emotional moments. The portrayal of the entrepreneur as an undaunted artist and businessman, i.e., the showman, is a throwback to Hollywood’s classic self-made man and the movie’s shockingly innocent, savvy and realistic in this regard.
For example, Barnum’s collection of circus performers, who invite the audience to get their freak on, climaxing in the Best Song-ready anthem “This Is Me”, rally to remind the audience of the risks of facing the muckraking media and the mob. The terrific ensemble, with its bearded lady, tattooed muscleman, dwarf and other “oddities”, also demonstrates the downsides of Barnum’s publicity campaigns. With this much gritty urban conflict, as New York City’s nasty early 20th century types object to Barnum’s self-proclaimed American museum, a euphemism for the movie’s and Barnum’s assimilationism, The Greatest Showman recalls Rent by Chris Columbus, minus Rent‘s anti-capitalist digs.
Yet this Bohemian-spirited The Greatest Showman is no misanthrope and the movie showcases more, giving the audience romanticized trains, cityscapes, opera houses, ballroom dancing, if not nearly enough tightrope walking, horses, lions and elephants. See Barnum come to visit Queen Victoria. See the young lovers roll in the sawdust. See the wife and kids in soft, subdued pink and blue lament of the circus life. When a play for respectability nearly derails Barnum’s goals, themed to the lovely (if not operatic) “Never Enough”, constant inner conflict becomes universal for anyone who’s never been good enough or who never stops wanting more of the good.
The show must go on, goes the cliche. In this dazzling, fabulous and flawed musical, the show stays centered and shines. I can’t stop humming the songs and seeing this movie makes me want to see The Greatest Showman one more time. That’s, as the saying goes, entertainment. Strictly for the closet romantics who’ve ever dreamed of running away to join the show and master and experience the joy of showmanship.