The Greatest Showman Is a Nothingburger with Great Music

Good news! If you’ve been looking for a PG-rated Moulin Rouge, I have the perfect film for you!

The Greatest Showman (aka Hugh Jackman’s Baz Luhrmann-wannabe pet project) is an original musical centered around the life of P.T. Barnum and origin of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Well, kind of. There’s A LOT of fictionalization. Here, Barnum is a rags-to-riches man who dreams of bettering the world for his family and the “curiosities” of his circus who have been outcasts all their lives. It’s definitely more entertaining than the truth, which is that Barnum exploited his performers, allowed animals to be abused, and straight-up owned a slave whom he later displayed in a public autopsy. But, hey, look…I get it. It’s supposed to be a family-friendly musical escape. Fantasy-life curiosities are better than real-life monstrosities.

Featuring songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and 2016’s La La Land), The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack is full of big ensemble, pop-styled showtunes you just want to belt in your car—or listen to over and over again before you even see the movie, which I definitely did not do (I did). Are the songs cheesy? Um, yeah, there’s a song called “Tightrope” that’s about how hard it is to be married to a circus man. Will I still listen despite that? You bet your sweet ass I will. Also, “This Is Me,” the movie’s unofficial anthem sung by The Bearded Lady (played by Tony-winning actress Keala Settle) already won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song and will most likely take home the Oscar this year, too.

Speaking of the music, my biggest gripe about The Greatest Showman is its sound editing and mixing. Somebody royally screwed up. The lyrics to these insanely catchy songs are barely audible because the instrumental scores and background noises from the scenes drown them out. “It’s not that big of a deal,” you say. Sure, no, you’re right. It’s just the huge moments the story banks on because it’s a musical (Get your head out of your ass). Honestly, the only song where I could decipher the lyrics was “Never Enough” because it was a quieter opera scene. The rest of the music? I caught every fifth word and the first line of the chorus before the beat dropped. Like I said, if there’s one thing you shouldn’t mess up in a musical film, it’s the music.

Greatest Showman - Zac Efron and Zendaya

Another area where The Greatest Showman falls short? Its story about Barnum and his (dumb) dreams. The trailer makes it seem like the story is about Barnum creating a haven for society’s outcasts. Even young Barnum’s song (“A Million Dreams”) at the beginning of the movie suggests he and his future wife Charity (Michelle Williams) want to make the world a better place. Then, about halfway through after you’ve been beaten over the head with talk of “dreams,” you realize Barnum’s dream is nothing more than climbing the wealth and social ladder. Not that I think the movie couldn’t tackle this idea. It could, but probably not within its family-friendly confines. After all, that story would be more in line with the true Barnum.

It just seems sort of off-putting that The Greatest Showman sells this whole “Savior of the Downtrodden” concept when Barnum does absolutely nothing to help anyone but himself. Had it been rewritten to focus on the Bearded Lady, rather than Barnum, it would’ve been much better. The film could’ve told her story about growing up “otherized” by society and her own mother, then shown her finding a home, a family, and an identity with Barnum’s circus. Plus, she already has the best song of the whole movie. Even focusing on the film’s star-crossed lovers—Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a white man from New York high society, and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a black woman who performs in the circus—would’ve been better. There, you’d have all kinds of storytelling opportunities with classism, racism, escapism, etc.

These issues aside, The Greatest Showman is still an enjoyable movie. It’s easy to lose yourself in the feel-good smarminess, especially by the closing number, where everything comes to a song-and-dance close without anyone dying, being lonely, or feeling sad (Literally, the most tension in this movie is a fire). In truth, all of the musical numbers are pretty great. If I had to choose a favorite, probably the sexless sex scene via trapeze choreography that is “Rewrite the Stars.” It’s mesmerizing (and it’s Zendaya, so I’m all in). Now…who wants to take bets on how long before The Greatest Showman is adapted for Broadway? I’m going under five years.

The Greatest Showman: C+

Listen to my review of The Greatest Showman on “Pat & JT in the Morning” here (at 17:16).

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