The Greatest Showman

Greatest Showman

Rating:7.8/10
Genre:   Biography, Drama, Musical
Relase Date:  20 Dec 2017
Director: Michael Gracey
Runtime: 1h 45min

Movie Bio There are those who will see this as a rose-colored-glasses view of what was a pretty exploitive situation. But in a 19th and early 20th century context, the circus and then vaudeville were welcoming places where those who had skills or who were rejected by society could find a home. Barnum put “misfit toys” onstage, saying, in essence, “Aren’t they amazing?” (all while filling his pockets. For more thoughts on P.T. Barnum’s barely acknowledged influence on American culture author Trav S.D.’s 2005 lecture at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT is a good place to start.) Cary Grant, who had a harsh poor childhood, got his start as a tumbler in a vaudeville troupe. Years later he described his revelatory first visit to the Bristol Hippodrome:

“The Saturday matinee was in full swing when I arrived backstage; and there I suddenly found my inarticulate self in a dazzling land of smiling, jostling people wearing and not wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things. And that’s when I knew! What other life could there be but that of an actor? They happily traveled and toured. They were classless, cheerful, and carefree. They gaily laughed, lived, and loved.”

That’s what “The Greatest Showman” captures.

The film starts with the title song “The Greatest Show,” a show-stopper with repetitive thumping percussion (reminiscent of Queen’s ferocious “We Will Rock You”). Hugh Jackman—in red impresario’s coat and top hat—takes us on a dazzling tour, with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey keeping the movements fluid, and all the actions connected, plunging you into the center ring. The whole number comes from the brazen heart of showbiz: Make it interesting! Give ’em something to look at! Make sure you reach the cheap seats! Barnum croons seductively, “Just surrender cuz you feel the feeling taking over!” I obeyed without reservation.

During the next number, “A Million Dreams” the young and poor Barnum (Ellis Rubin) befriends a well-bred little girl named Charity Hallett (Skylar Dunn), and they dream of creating their own destiny. This is the first time in “The Greatest Showman” where a character stops speaking and starts to sing instead; the segue is gracefully handled, setting up the artificial device early on. If you don’t set up that trope with confidence, it makes it look like you’re embarrassed to be doing a musical. By the end of the song, the little boy has become Hugh Jackman and the little girl has become Michelle Williams, leaping and twirling across the rooftop of their tenement, bed sheets on the line billowing to the beat.

After struggling to establish himself, Barnum launches out on his own, creating a theatre in the heart of New York City. He gathers together people with special talents as well as those with physical abnormalities (a giant, a bearded lady, Siamese twins, a dwarf—who would eventually be known as General Tom Thumb, Barnum’s first “breakout star”). The “audition” sequence is extremely tricky, but the tone is set by Jackman’s inclusive delight at the parade of humanity before him. It’s a moment when ignored people are for the first time really seen.

Lettie Lutz, the “bearded lady,” played by Tony-nominee Keala Settle, with a powerhouse voice, is one of the first to come on board. Settle’s performance—her first major role onscreen—is one of the many keys to why “The Greatest Showman” is so effective. She understands the spirit of the project, and you watch her transformation from cringing shame to fearless Diva. Her anthemic “This Is Me” is one of the emotional centers of the film. Barnum’s business partner is playwright and society boy Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), with snobby parents who are not only horrified at his “slumming,” but also at his romance with an African-American trapeze artist (Zendaya) who sports a pompadour of cotton-candy pink hair. Their love story, as presented, is tender, pained, and sweet.

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