Synopsis: A musical very loosely based on nineteenth century promoter and circus owner, PT Barnum.
The Greatest Showman is a musical tribute to self-acceptance, inclusion and dreams coming true. Oddly enough, it’s based on the life of PT Barnum, professional exploiter of POC, people of unconventional appearance and wild animals. How jolly!
Hugh Jackman, as PT Barnum, sings, dances and showmans the heck out of his role. He’s an ambitious huckster from a modest background. Early on in the movie he romances and marries the angelic rich girl, Charity (Michelle Williams). Her snobby parents reject him, but she doesn’t care. Some day, he vows, I will show all of those swells just how much class I have. They are poor, but happy. Michelle Williams spends the movie staring at Hugh J with starry-eyed awe.
Dreamer and all around great guy PT opens a curiosity museum –apparently all the rage in the mid 1800s– to show his in-laws and every other snob just how classy he is. The real PT exhibited a Feejee Mermaid which was a taxidermied monkey head sewn onto a fishtail. In reel life, his adorable daughters give him the idea of adding “something living” to the museum. PT eagerly begins gathering unconventional looking people (with few prospects owing to prejudice) to be on-site for customers to yawp at. Thanks, kids!
The real Barnum got his start exhibiting an elderly black woman, claiming she had been George Washington’s nurse. He had “leased” her for a year. The movie wisely skips this anecdote, as even Hugh Jackman could not sell this. Naturally, sensibilities have changed over more than a hundred and fifty years. The recruitment of people who were viewed as “freaks” has been sanitized for today’s audience; this PT is inviting these folks into show business to boost their self esteem and celebrate diversity. He puts together a circus show featuring conjoined twins, a young man with skeletal dysplasia and another with albinism. Also, a tattooed guy, “dog boy” and a bearded lady who has a great voice. When kindly PT first approaches the hirsute gal, she is working as a laundress, shamed into laboring in a segregated area. The character, Lettie, is played by Keala Settle who belts out the showstopper “This Is Me.” Her impressive voice distracted me, but then my mind wandered … did her character not shave as a protest against oppressive standards of female beauty? The film never addresses this, and I couldn’t help but imagine a scene where the character confides to PT that she’s been made an outsider because of her weight. “No,” PT would inform her, ” it’s because of your lady-beard.” “My beard?!” she would exclaim. “Good golly, guess I’ll just shave. Problem solved!” But it is not a sensible film. It’s a film for and about dreamers.
Speaking of dreamers… the film gives us two young, conventionally good looking people to ogle: Zac Efron (Troy from Disney’s High School Musical) and Zendaya K.C. from Disney’s K.C. Undercover)! PT hires Zac to add class to his circus. Which he does in no discernible way. Zendaya is a trapeze artist. The implication — I guess — is that she can’t get hired anywhere else because she is biracial. Zac and Zendaya fall in love and spin around on the acrobat silks while singing, “Rewrite the Stars.” I was so glad that they were hooking up. And that the songs were better than the ones from La La Land (also from music composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul).
Meanwhile, the circus is doing just great with all of the empowered former outsiders and the CGI wildlife. These animals looked happier because, not surprisingly, real lions do not relish jumping through flaming hoops nor do elephants happily perform in circus shows. I gather that because a 2011 year-long Mother Jones investigation reported that circus elephants spent most of their time in chains, on trains… controlled by bullhooks. So, yes, the CGI animals can be happy on film while the wild animals can be happy in the jungle.
But the greatest showman is not happy because he craves respectability. He leaves behind his family and the circus to promote a tour of the purported greatest singer in the world, Jenny Lind. In the movie, she is a shameless hussy who tries to lead PT astray. While she warbles away on stage, PT fixes his gaze on her like a real demento, and we see poor Michelle Williams looking sad back home. Will PT find his way back home? No. He will have an affair and tell his family AND circus family to go to hell.
Seriously? Do you think that the real greatest showman, Hugh Jackman, would let his character be anything less than virtuous? Or his movie anything less than uplifting? Not a chance.
P.S. For some real entertainment, 1800s style, you might want to check out PT Barnum’s book, the masterpiece, Humbugs of the World.
Cut to the Chase: Flashy and superficial spectacle
Comedy Highlight: When the troupe meets Queen Victoria and charm and sass her