Now let’s face it. You either love musicals or you don’t. I was brought up by musical parents who knew all the Hollywood musicals. So, yes, I am very fond of musicals. I went and saw this one last week and came away toe-tappingly impressed.
Hollywood seems to have re-discovered the musical in recent years. Witness the success of “La La Land”, which I liked very much. So too with “The Greatest Showman”, Hollywood’s colourful, tuneful, and exciting tribute to the early life and career of PT Barnum. Like its subject, this movie is exuberant, very colourful, well acted, and filled with some memorable music.
I knew very little of Barnum’s life and career, until this film motivated me to Google him. Fascinating character, fascinating life, some leading incidents of which actually appear in the film. Otherwise, enjoy it as a piece of semi-fictional musical theatre, where historical truth often takes a backseat to old-style Hollywood entertainment.
PT Barnum was a US showman, promoter, philanthropist, politician, author, indeed just about anything that would gain him money and notoriety. His life spanned much of the 19th century. He was famous for the circus named after him and his business partner (Barnum and Bailey’s circus), though in real life circuses were merely one of his many business ventures.
The movie concentrates upon the early part of his career and life, as he struggles to gain success and acceptance in a doubting world that looked down on his humble social origins. Indeed, one of the major themes of the film is Barnum struggling to escape his humble background by being a successful businessman so that a socially-superior world will be forced to recognise him. This theme is repeated in his private life: he woos and wins the daughter of a wealthy, prominent family who initially can’t stand him. Society’s distaste for him is sharpened when he decides to make a living by opening a performance museum stocked with oddities, animals, freaks, dwarfs, and other damaged people. Yes, he is exploiting these poor souls for his own enrichment but, as a character points out, Barnum is giving these people a job and a salary and a home when the rest of the world pushes them into the gutter.
As PT Barnum, Aussie acting legend Hugh Jackman is great. He comes from a song-and-dance background anyway, sings his own songs, and performs the role with breezy, infectious enthusiasm. Maybe he is a fraction too old to play a young PT Barnum, but this is more than offset by the energy and good humour he brings to the role. As Charity, the wealthy girl he steals to be his wife, Michelle Williams stands by her man through financial thick and thin, only faltering when he almost has an affair (entirely fictional) with Jenny Lind, a real-life 19th century Swedish songstress whose successful American tour was sponsored by the real-life Barnum. Lind is played by Rebecca Ferguson with a slightly superior European air which melts under Barnum’s irresistible charm. Both actors capture the essence of these two leading female characters very convincingly. Williams apparently sings her own songs, but Ferguson expertly mimes hers to the singing voice of Loren Allred. Zac Efron, another actor with a solid song-and-dance background, sings his own songs and plays Phillip Carlyle (a mainly fictional character), a young, socially prominent playwright who Barnum takes on as his business partner to give his enterprise not only some money, but some socially acceptable, intellectual heft too. Carlyle has his own romantic problems with Anne, a young female acrobat in Barnum’s show, much to the disgust of his own snobbish, socially-superior family. Anne is played dazzlingly by the very cute and talented African-American actor Zendaya. She is good; I reckon we will see a lot more of her in the future.
The music in the show is partly written by the same guys who contributed to the music of “La La Land”. The songs are of that semi-rock, anthem -like quality that we are familiar with from shows like “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera”, often with a pounding, deeply infectious percussion that reminded me strongly of Queen at their best. Once you accept that this is a 19th-century story told with a 21st-century music soundtrack, you forget and forgive this slight incongruity! I loved the music and tapped my fingers in time throughout the film. It is heard to best advantage on a sound system that is good for bass; on a cinema sound system it was absolutely great.
Although directed by relatively inexperienced Michael Gracey, he pulls it off with great panache, colour, movement and spectacle. At times I thought “this guy is another Bazz Luhrmann”, but with more sensitivity to the emotional depths, inner struggles and conflicts of his characters. If this is his first big movie, I look forward to his next. He definitely has talent.
I enjoyed this movie immensely. Its bottom line – a theme repeated in so many American films – is that, if you have a dream and work hard enough, you can overcome any social, financial, or racial obstacles. Not a bad motto to follow in life, even if it does have some practical problems.
I give the film 4 ½ stars out of five.