The Greatest Showman (2017)

  • Time: 105 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Musical
  • Director: Michael Gracey
  • Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron


Inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman is an original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.


  • The Greatest Showman is my latest assessment. It is touted as a musical. Therefore, how can I possibly recommend “Showman” if its best scenes don’t involve the actors and/or actresses breaking into song.

    Anyway, The Greatest Showman comes off like hasty rags to riches stuff. It tests your show tunes patience but it could never be mistaken as boring. “Showman” is meager and flashy and I guess, betters something like 2014’s Into the Woods. In truth, Into the Woods didn’t have an actual hint of a story. “Showman” in fits and starts, sort of does.

    Throughout “Showman”, I kept wondering what the late P. T. Barnum (the movie’s subject and true-life inspiration) would have thought had he been alive to see it. He probably would’ve marveled at “Showman’s” energy and playful, near period look. At the same time, P. T. would’ve scoffed at the lack of depth used to recreate his own life’s account.

    The Greatest Showman feels like a modern day take on Barnum’s inception of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. It has lavish dance numbers accompanied by contemporary melodies that pound you over the head with their Muzak-like senses.

    Rookie director Michael Gracey thinks he’s making an Academy Award winner with “Showman”. The unfortunate validity is that his film lacks artistic merit and has an unintentional “popcorn” feel to it. Gracey fills The Greatest Showman with plenty of razzle-dazzle. His pace is feverish with roving camera movements and a few whip pans. Sure his “Showman” has a narrative but its narrative is arbitrarily slight and takes shortcuts. Gracey would rather have his flick “show” off musically, freakishly, and visually. That explains the running time of The Greatest Showman which is a less-than-monumental 105 minutes.

    “Showman”, with its characters comprised of a bearded lady, a dwarf, and an acrobat, stars Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Michelle Williams. Jackman takes on the title role of P. T. Barnum. Jackman in a way, is almost perfectly cast. He’s got the looks, he can dance, and he can act. The problem is that he’s not much of a singer. As for Efron, well it feels like he took on his “Showman” role to shake off his image of appearing in lots of teenage sex comedies. Here’s the problem: The Greatest Showman is not quite the vehicle to break Zac out of his raunchy, frat boy shell. Rating: 2 stars.

    Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

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  • Unlike last year’s La La Land, which fused the grand MGM musicals of the Forties and Fifties with the more melancholic French ones of the Sixties, The Greatest Showman is an unapologetically old-fashioned movie musical that aims to entertain whilst joyfully exhorting its audience to celebrate the differences that define each and every one of us. What it is most definitely not, however, is a biography of its title character, one Mr. Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, the man who invented the business of show.

    Yes, Barnum was the son of a tailor as depicted in the film. He may have met his future wife Charity when they were mere children, it may have even happened at her family’s estate whilst his father was fitting her father for a new suit. Yes, they married; he may have promised her a world of wealth and happiness and he may have initially failed to do just that for her and their two daughters. Yes, he assembled a show featuring a group of eccentrics and oddities, promoted the hell out of it and made it and himself the talk of the town. Yet this is the same man who began his career by purchasing and exhibiting an old, blind and almost completely paralysed former slave, working her for 10 to 12 hours a day, and then hosting a live autopsy of her dead body for 50 cents per spectator. Yes, his decision to tour and promote Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind, was a risk that paid off, establishing him as a legitimate impresario in the eyes of high society, but their parting was caused by the devout and charitable Lind’s discomfort in his relentless marketing of the tour, not the result of a rebuffed romantic advance.

    That The Greatest Showman plays as loosely with the facts as old Hollywood musicals and glosses over the darker, more ethically suspect aspects of its central figure is not necessarily a terrible thing. For one thing, there’s Hugh Jackman at its centre. Jackman, it should be remembered, got his start in musicals and no actor today is as comfortable as he is in this genre. He understands that, in order for a number to truly soar and transport, there is a fine line between reality and fantasy that must be tread. Jackman is a song and dance man at heart and it is always gratifying to watch him in a genre he obviously adores.

    The Greatest Showman moves at a brisk pace, the numbers are splashy and energetic and often beautifully staged, and its tunes are catchy. It embodies the racist attitudes of the time in the interracial love story between playwright and playboy Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya, who continues to prove what a natural born star she is with each passing film). The two perform a lovely duet called “Rewrite the Stars,” wooing one another as they swing and spin on acrobatic ropes. Its best song, “This is Me,” is a triumphant battle cry: “I’m not scared to be seen / I make no apologies / This is me.”

    And yet… For all its trumpeting of diversity and embracing of the differences that are strengths rather than failures, it gives short shrift to the very characters that define its overarching ethos. Yes, the film is predominantly focused on Barnum’s rise and fall and rise trajectory, but Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Tattooed Man, the Irish Giant, and all the others are never more than their monikers. More than its fudging of the facts and overlooking Barnum’s less admirable nature, the film’s shabby treatment of the very characters it extols is its most egregious crime.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆ out of 5 stars)

    GRADE: C+


    IN BRIEF: A lot of singing and dancing, and pure hokum.

    SYNOPSIS: The life of P.T. Barnum ala a Hollywood musical.

    JIM’S REVIEW: The Greatest Showman has its heart in the right place, but it unfortunately never achieves its musical goal. It invests a lot, and I mean a lot, of talent and hard work with very little dividend.

    The songs are foot-stomping, uplifting, and hummable tunes, but become derivative imitations of themselves. Every musical number sounds and looks alike with no modulation. Even the ballads are slow-downed versions of other songs in the film. The original score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul lacks range, a deliberate sameness creeps in for most musical moments, but their music definitely delivers in energetic peppiness with toe-tapping “feel-good” form. They are experts in writing clever “hooks”. The modern choreography is more 2017 variety than 1917 period but is very well done. Kudos to Ashley Wallen and his accomplished dancers for stomping their way into your hearts.

    Nathan’s Crowley’s lovely production design sings out, as does the costumes created by Ellen Mirojnick. Michael Gracey’s solid direction is fluid and successfully captures the nostalgic musical origins of the big Hollywood musicals of yore (although think what these filmmakers could have done with Cy Coleman’s far superior Broadway musical gem, Barnum!).

    The major problem with the film, and it is a major issue, is the paper thin plot that follows the most predictable of story-lines. Whenever the singing and dancing stops, so does the film. The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon is a real letdown, with underwritten characters and petty conflicts all under the big top in a very conventional way. Their script is mostly an outline to serve the musical moments and rarely advances the plot. The relationships are all strained beyond reality and each character seems to be a mere prop device to lead into the next musical interlude.

    The casting is a mixed bag also. Hugh Jackman is really the greatest showman, more so than Barnum himself. He is a natural song and dance man. Watching him move with such grace and charisma is almost worth the price of admission (but there is that awful script, remember). Michelle Williams is his loving wife, Charity, and she is given so little to do to showcase her musical talents. Zac Efron as rich playboy, Phillip Carlyle, tries hard, but just doesn’t have the musical ability, no matter how they edit the movie. Zendaya plays his love interest and their love story seems like a second thought. Their romance may convince a giddy twelve-year-old girl about the things we do for love, but it left me questioning the things they did for a paycheck.

    Perhaps the weakest link is the usually dependable Rebecca Ferguson, totally miscast as the operatic Jenny Lind. Supposedly this world renown singer and crowd-pleasing attraction to Barnum’s circus of oddities, wowed the patrons back then. However, the singing on the screen could never come near a high C. Ms. Ferguson’s performance is more like a B-flat. (In creating such an important supporting role, it is beyond me why the filmmakers couldn’t find an attractive and trained opera singer to fill the bill. Go to the Met and take your pick.)

    So, even though the movie is entertaining on a musical level, The Greatest Showman is plain hokum, albeit nice-looking hokum. There is plenty of razzle-dazzle on display although it is just painted cardboard and glitter that remains. As Barnum would say, “There is one born every minute.” (Even though Ms. Lind could not hit that high C, the film’s grade did.)

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  • Ignore the critics: this IS the greatest show!
    Rating: 8*.

    Will you like “The Greatest Showman”? This will be dictated almost entirely by whether you are a “musicals” person or not! For “The Greatest Showman” is a frothy, very loud, cheesy and high-energy musical, much more aligned, in fact, to the mainstream genre from the 40’s and 50’s than “La La Land” was.

    In a VERY loose interpretation of the early life of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the American huckster and impressario, we start the story with a pre-pubescent Barnum (Ellis Rubin, sung by Ziv Zaifman) as a young tailor’s assistant punching above his weight with young socialite Charity (Skylar Dunn), firmly against the wishes of her father. Spin forward (via song) and the hitched Barnum’s – now Hugh Jackman (“Logan“) and Michelle Williams (“Manchester By The Sea“) – are barely scraping a living. But Barnum has “A Million Dreams” and hits on the novel idea of opening an entertainment (coined “a circus” by journalist James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks)) where he offers both respect and a family to those of the city who are deformed, rejected and socially shunned. Barnum’s show is shockingly entertaining – as in both filling seats and shocking the morally-self-righteous upper classes. But never one to rest on his laurels, Barnum’s endless ambition drives him to break his social ceiling by importing the “Swedish songbird”, opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation“, “The Snowman“) ), for an ambitious and extravegant tour of the States. All does not exactly go to plan.

    Most critics have been making sniffy noises about this film. But I am not one of them…. I LOVED IT, have already bought the glorious soundtrack album and will be looking forwards to the DVD release. For this is joy in a box. Sure, the story is a bit weak, the characterisations of everyone (other than Barnum) pretty lightweight, but it’s a musical extravaganza! Live with it!

    Hugh Jackman, who of course started his career in stage musicals, is marvellously charismatic as Barnum although his singing does tend to the “shouty” end of the scale in many of the numbers. He’s joined here by fellow musicals star Zac Efron (let’s forget “Dirty Grandpa“) as the fictitious Phillip Carlyle: a socialite playwright and partner.

    But the acting and singing revelation for me was Zendaya (“Spider-Man: Homecoming“) as Efron’s (scandalous) inter-racial love interest, who has a fantastically athletic body, sings and dances wonderfully and has a magnetic stare. A marvellous trapeze routine between Efron and Zendaya (“Rewrite The Stars”) is one of the high-spots of the film for me.

    Elsewhere Williams proves she has a singing voice as well as being a top flight actress and the bearded lady (Broadway star Keala Settle) belts out one of the show-stopping numbers “This is Me” (although she is a little ‘shrill’ for my musical tastes).

    It would be nice to extend that compliment to the wonderful Rebecca Ferguson as the “greatest singer in the world” – but she is (wisely I think) dubbed here by Loren Allred (a finalist on the US version of “The Voice”). It is a bit of a shock when “the great opera singer” opens her mouth and a modern love song comes out, but once you get over that then the combination of Ferguson’s acting and Allred’s singing makes “Never Enough” one of the standout songs in the movie. (It’s been described as “a bit Eurovision” by Kevin Maher, “The Times” critic, which I can see but I don’t care! I find it marvellously moving).

    If you haven’t guessed it, there are some fantastic songs in this movie, written by “La La Land” song composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and at least one of these surely must be Oscar nominated (I’m not sure what the cut-off would be for the 2018 Oscars?).

    There’s also a lot of talent in the backroom with production design and memorable costumes. Where I’d single out particular praise though is in the choreography and the editing on show.

    Firstly, the choreography of “beats” in the song to the action on screen is brilliantly done, done, probably at its most impressive in a shot-glass bar-room scene between Jackman and Efron. And never (hats off to the special effects guys and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) have you seen washing on a washing line so cleverly in time with the music.

    Secondly in terms of the film editing, I am a sucker for clever “transition” shots, and there are some in this movie that just took my breath away: a transition to a pregnant Charity; a transition from ballet practice to ballet performance; there are numerous others!

    I have decided to park some of my minor criticisms within the greater joy of the whole: some of the dialogue (by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon) is as cheesy as hell, but probably no more so than in some of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals. Where I had my biggest problem is in some of the lip synching to the songs. This is an age where the live recording of songs in films like “Les Miserables” and “La La Land” has set the bar high, and returning to the norm (I had the same problem with “Beauty and the Beast“) becomes noticeable and irritating to me. (Perhaps this is just me!).

    It’s certainly not a perfect film, but its energy and drive carry it through as a memorable movie musical that may well take on a life of its own as word-of-mouth gets it more widely viewed (outside of the rather difficult Christmas holiday season). It would also be a good film for youngsters, with a bit of judicious editing (there is one moment of violence in the first 10 minutes that I would choose to edit out). From my perspective it is certainly a truly impressive debut for advert director Michael Gracey. Recommended for musical fans.

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