In every moment in this movie you can tell, you can tell just how badly Hugh Jackman wanted to make this movie. You can find entertainment news articles dating back to as early as 2009 about Hugh Jackman working on an original musical about the life of P.T. Barnum. After his portrayal of Wolverine, Jackman’s love for Broadway and musicals is probably the thing he’s best known for. Jackman has hosted the Tony awards in the past, starred in multiple Broadway shows over his career, and was also the star of Les Miserables back in 2012. When Jackman hosted the Oscars he took time out to perform an extended tribute to movie musicals, boldly declaring at the end that “The musical is back!” Of course it would be close to a decade before he was able to finally present the movie he was probably thinking of when he boldly declared that. Despite a musical movie making a splash every year or so Hollywood still seems to be nervous about putting out a full blown original musical. So in that sense, The Greatest Showman is still something we don’t get to see all that often.
One of the biggest conversations coming out of the movie is what kind of man P.T. Barnum was in real life. The “Champion for the Lost” that this movie portrays him as was not the man in real life. You can find plenty of articles and think pieces all over the internet that are more than happy to tell you where the movie is inaccurate. But this movie is a musical, a musical fantasy and one that’s rated PG at that. You can criticize the movie for not being accurate to the real history if you want but that was clearly never the film’s goal. The Greatest Showman is without question a movie about the power of the individual, and celebrating our differences, and while P.T. Barnum was, at the very least, a more complicated individual that what Jackman is portraying here, it’s worth noting that Jackman’s Barnum is still, more often than not, the one that gets put in his place here.
Jackman’s version of P.T. Barnum is a man who was born into poverty, fell in love with a well off girl, and spent his days dreaming of a life where he would be accepted among the elite of society. While Barnum spends his time with the circus cast that he’s pulled together, a big part of the story is about Barnum’s attempts to bring “legitimate” or high class performances to those who look down on his circus act as the lowest form of entertainment. Barnum is quick to abandon the interests of his companions when an opportunity to fulfil his personal needs presents itself, though this is pretty much the expected plot from any formula driven movie about finding your true self, especially one that revolves around any aspect of the show business.
In fact that’s an easy way to describe much of the movie. The plot goes in every direction you would expect the plot to go. You get a few side stories, but even those tread a very familiar path. This isn’t necessarily a complaint to be leveled against the movie. At times is can be nice, perhaps comforting, to see a new story that follows familiar beats but you shouldn’t expect anything to catch you off guard. The plot is kept as familiar as possible to make plenty of room for the real star of the show, the songs.
As with any musical, The Greatest Showman can live and die on how much you enjoy the songs in the movie. With eleven songs, The Greatest Showman has enough music in it to feel like it’s justified in being a musical (as compared to say La La Land which has five full out musical numbers with a lot of extra “musically themed” moments to make it feel like a full musical). While all the songs are good, there’s not a ton of variety in them. The themes of dreaming big and making your own destiny are the main point of most of the songs. “This is Me” is clearly meant to be the big song of the movie, the one that would be at the end of Act One if this were done on a stage. However, one of the better songs in the movie, and one that is likely to be overlooked, is a duet between Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman called “The Other Side” where Barnum is convincing Phillip Carlyle (a playwright played by Zac Efron) to join him in his circus endeavor. It’s light, fast paced, and a bit of a hidden gem in a soundtrack that’s full of impassioned ballads and heartfelt anthems.
The Greatest Showman is a fine movie. And with only one (maybe two) big musical movies coming out in a year it does a good job being a safe, enjoyable musical for those who want to see a new musical on the big screen. And it’s important that the genre of musical continue to produce original content, not just adapting shows that were already hits on Broadway (those shows themselves having often been adapted from movies in the first place), so it’s good to see an original musical with original songs, getting to the big screen. But hopefully it is a stepping stone for the genre. If we want to truly be able to declare that “The musical is back!” then hopefully we’ll be seeing new, interesting, risks in the form of musicals in the near future.
Tags: film, hugh jackman, movie, Musical, review, the greatest showman, Zac Efron