Perhaps it is fitting to conclude 2017 with a film simultaneously both awful and fantastic. Truly dreadful wigs, bizarre CGI, catchy songs, Zac & Zendaya – ‘The Greatest Showman’ really does have it all. A passion project of Hugh Jackman’s; this movie has been in gestation for at least a decade, to the extent that I’m surprised he didn’t take the directorial reins himself. Instead, we have the inexperienced Michael Gracey – whose IMDb credits are mostly visual effects and art department – which is….intriguing once you’ve seen ‘The Greatest Showman’. There are rumours that ‘Logan’s’ James Mangold had to come to the rescue on ‘The Greatest Showman’ and this certainly makes sense of the tonal and editing inconsistencies. Hugh Jackman has certainly had quite the year: starting with an Oscar-worthy turn in Logan and ending with this.
I sound as if I’m being really negative about this film and while it is a trashy mess, I will say that I immediately wanted to watch the whole thing again once it was over. For those going to the cinema expecting an historically accurate biopic of PT Barnum will be sorely disappointed. This being a glitzy, feel-good musical, it certainly glosses over the fact that Barnum was not the ‘saviour of the down-trodden and oppressed’ as portrayed here. In fact, his real-life treatment of the disabled people, people of colour and animals who populated his ‘freak shows’ left much to be desired. He certainly exploited them (even after their deaths) and presented them as exotic curiosities, simply for being ‘foreign’ or outside of the Victorian norm. Barnum’s exaggeration and manipulation of certain characteristics is touched on in the film, but much more could have been made of one man constructing a reality to fit the bigoted viewpoint of the audience. The parallels with another purveyor of fake news and the invention of show business and celebrity could have been an interesting exploration, but instead we have a paper-thin musical.
IF you can choose to view ‘The Greatest Showman’ simply as a fictional fantasy, there is something to enjoy here. I am not above being excited by the sight of Zac Efron in a ringmaster’s costume and delighting in seeing him singing and dancing again. His duet with Hugh Jackman, when they make a business deal in a bar, punctuated by the rhythmic downing of shots is a thrilling spectacle. Zendaya is magnificent as a pink-haired flying trapeze artist, who shares another delightful duet with Zac. The casting of Michelle Williams, however, is so glaringly erroneous it lept out, even in the trailer. We are supposed to accept that Williams and Jackman (who have a 12 year age-gap) are the same age (they are portrayed as childhood sweethearts), she is donned in a long blonde wig and given a thankless task of a role. A total waste of Williams’ acting talents.
The songs are cheesy but catchy and I have sought them out since seeing the film. Some of the choices made in this film are so bizarre though; like the casting of Hugh Jackman as his own boss for no apparent reason in a short scene. Rebecca Ferguson is cast (in another terrible wig) as a singer who Barnum inexplicably takes on tour across the country, getting into yet more debt. Another dubious casting choice, when apparently she did not do her own singing.
Frankly, thinking back on this film is giving me a headache. It is a frustrating mess, with much to mock. However, I do admit to being swept along with some of the musical numbers and circus scenes. Keala Settle’s barn-storming performance as Lettie Lutz – The Bearded Lady, leading her troop in a rousing number did stir something inside me. So, ultimately I have to accept that a large part of me enjoyed ‘The Greatest Showman’, because after all THIS IS ME.
Fiona’s Rating: 6.0/10
Directed By: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II