The best musicals are the ones where the songs never seem out of place. Where we don’t, for a second, think to ourselves how weird it is for the characters to break into song at any given moment–however inherently strange it is anyway, if we stop to think about it. However, The Greatest Showman has several moments where you almost wait for everyone in the audience to laugh, as the musical numbers feel comedically forced. Almost as if it’s parodying a musical, itself.
When I go into a biopic, I want to get a sense that I’m being educated on the subject at hand. Making it a musical automatically takes me out of the realism of it all. But then again, that’s the spirit of P.T. Barnum. You don’t leave the theater feeling like you know a great deal more about him–even though you sorta do–because you keep feeling like you just watched a work of fiction.
It follows Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman, as he starts from nothing to practically creating the circus as we know it today.
Controversy never leaves Barnum’s side as his show is rooted in exaggerating truths. He hires a 7-foot-tall man and puts him on stilts to make him even taller. He takes a 500-pound man and tells people he’s 750-pounds. He often gets his motivations confused, sacrificing his integrity because of his love for the money and the fame.
The movie takes some great liberties with its subject matter as well. Much like Barnum, it thinks that the real-life people aren’t nearly as intriguing as the audience wants them to be. Although Barnum’s actual life may be far more intriguing than the version of him in this film.
It does do a good job at presenting the man’s flaws. With protagonists, these things often show signs of acquiescence or hesitation. But the filmmakers here don’t shy away from showing Barnum at all angles. Though he comes from humble beginnings, he tends to forget where he comes from, enjoying the high-life a little too much and letting his ego separate himself from his outcast performers.
But the character arcs are often abrupt and not gradual enough. One minute he’s doing one thing, and then all of a sudden, he’s acting like a jerk.
In his directorial debut, Michael Gracey does a lot of things right. For one, he keeps the Zendaya dialogue at a minimum. But he also does a lot of things wrong.
There are two elements that practically carry this film–the music and the era, itself–even if they’re both working against each other.
The songs are intentionally anachronistic. They’re strictly rooted in modern pop music. The movie takes place in the early-to-mid 19th century, and while pop music doesn’t quite exist then, it could have used styles of early 20th century and most people wouldn’t have known the difference. Movies convincingly do it all the time.
As a society, we’ve always been fascinated with the circus. And early circus culture has a sort of mystique to us, as many of the exhibits would never and could never happen in today’s world. But the modern music in the film practically rips us out of the time period.
So not only is the fact that it’s a musical, alone, enough to make us feel like it’s a work of fiction, but the type of music used furthers us from any sense of fact that the movie tries to establish–constantly reminding us that it cares very little about presenting a good, true story. It’s almost as if the filmmakers don’t even see this as an opportunity to educate the audience. I think they just want to entertain.
It just could have been so much better if it hadn’t concerned itself with mass appeal–just like Barnum, himself.
“A sucker is born every minute.” -P.T. Barnum