The real P.T. Barnum was 60 when he got into the circus business, following careers as a freak show entrepreneur, a museum owner, and a concert promoter for the legendary Swedish soprano Jenny Lind in her first American tour. He was a temperance lecturer, a reformer, a four-term Connecticut state legislator, and the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was a legendary conman. He advocated for the 13th Amendment and also promoted blackface minstrelsy. He made a name for himself by engaging in what some have decried as dehumanization of the disabled. He engaged in what he called “profitable philanthropy,” giving away money but getting a boost in the process.
Barnum was many things. But above all, he was a virtuosic self-promoter of the exaggerated, the inauthentic, and the fake — all in the name of entertainment, of course.
Some fragments of this Barnum remain in The Greatest Showman, a knock-down, drag-out, eye-popper of a movie musical that insists from the get-go that you “Don't fight it, it's coming for you, running at ya / It's only this moment, don't care what comes after / Your fever dream, can't you see it getting closer / Just surrender 'cause you feel the feeling taking over.”
And so it is. I left The Greatest Showman having felt nearly the full range of feels a person can feel in a theater: trepidation, elation, fear, rage, conflict, bafflement, sugar high, swooniness, eyerollitude. Most of all I felt overwhelmed. I still feel overwhelmed. That’s what this movie wants everyone in its addlepated path to feel.
Because The Greatest Showman is not, in any traditional sense of the phrase, a biographical motion picture about P.T. Barnum. It is a high-energy, breathless fantasy. Employing sleight of hand, some fast talking, and a lot of tall tales, it exaggerates the legend until the illusion takes on a life of its own, turning into the promised “fever dream” that, while admittedly stuffed with some truly excellent musical setpieces, has something sinister at its core.
The Greatest Showman rewrites the story of P.T. Barnum as a tale of empowerment
The hands-down best part of The Greatest Showman is getting to watch Hugh Jackman having the time of his life. His last movie musical, 2012’s Les Miserables, was a considerably more serious tale. And though his last movie, Logan, was one of 2017’s better superhero films, playing Wolverine always looked a bit painful.
As Barnum, Jackman is in rare form, dancing and whirling and stamping and belting out tunes with such gusto that it feels like he’s a musical tiger someone finally let out of his cage. (This is a passion project for Jackman — it’s been eight years since it was first announced — so that may not be too far off.) His Barnum is genial, spirited, and madly in love with the world, especially his beautiful, extremely supportive wife Charity (Michelle Williams), with whom he fell in love when they were both children — he the son of a poor tailor, she the daughter of a wealthy snob.
As adults, they marry and live a cheerful life in poverty while Barnum sings about the “brightest colors” and “million dreams” that keep him awake at night, a vision of what “the world could be.” The movie is remarkably unspecific about what this world would entail, other than the assurance that Charity and their two daughters have a beautiful home that might conveniently let Barnum snub his nose at his father-in-law, who’s always been sure he’ll never amount to anything.
Eventually Barnum cons the bank into lending him $10,000 and buys a museum, which he fills with curiosities and wax figures. But business doesn’t pick up until he realizes people would rather see live curiosities than not-live ones. So he posts fliers and recruits a band of misfits: a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a very short man (Sam Humphrey), a strong man (Timothy Hughes), a pair of trapeze artists (Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and a bevy of other performers who are used to being laughed at. Barnum promises the crowd will love them.
And so they have a circus. Barnum gets rich, and picks up a junior business partner, the wealthy scion Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron). They all get so famous they’re invited to meet Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin) at court, where Barnum claps eyes on the singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Carlyle clues Barnum in to who she is, and he hatches a plan on the spot to tour her around America, sell tickets, and make bank — and, it’s implied, gain some respectability that hanging out with society’s misfits can’t provide. Soon, there is trouble in paradise.
The Greatest Showman’s music is its greatest asset
There are 11 original songs in The Greatest Showman, which is good, because everything that happens in between The Greatest Showman’s songs is thinly drawn, flatly imagined, and mostly unbelievable. This is not a movie concerned with making you understand its characters’ backgrounds and motivations; they just are. Rich people are mean snobs; Charity is supportive to a fault; the circus performers are brave and badass; Barnum is a visionary genius, with a vague vision for a world that could be. The movie isn’t very interested in its characters. Its only goal is skating from song to song, because that’s where the good stuff happens.
Sometimes that’s okay. There are several top-notch sequences that showcase the performers in The Greatest Showman. A Zendaya/Zac Efron trapeze duet set to power-pop ballad “Rewrite the Stars” and a fast-moving song-and-dance, in which Jackman and Efron strike their partnership bargain in a pub over shots of whiskey, set to the vaguely Mumford and Sons-inspired “The Other Side,” are two particularly good ones. The staging, overall, employs some montage-style trickery that’s easy enough to pull off on stage — where people have already bought into an illusion when they settle into their seats — but a lot harder on screen, where we’re trained to expect more realism. Here, though, it often works, with time moving quickly during certain songs in an often credible way. And when the whole ensemble gets cranking in a crackling, stomping showstopper like “This is Me,” you kind of just have to give up and give in.
The songs’ writers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are on top of the world right now; they wrote songs for last year’s La La Land and won an Oscar for “City of Stars,” and their Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen won six Tonys last year and is up for a Grammy. The duo’s songs for Greatest Showman don’t feel like traditional show tunes: For the most part, they’re radio-styled inspirational pop ballads with driving beats and soaring hooks that drive their feel-good barbs into your brain. They seem tailor-made for future TV singing competitions, karaoke nights, and figure skating duets.
So they work well for a film like The Greatest Showman, which needs something to drive its action forward in the most broadly appealing way possible. They develop the story, too (the first song covers what appears to be about 15 years). Characters fall in and out of love, deals are wheeled, hurts are swept away, all in the space of a song.
Why doesn’t this movie want to give us a glimpse of reality?
That isn’t real life, obviously. The Greatest Showman doesn’t pretend it is. In fact, real life is bad in The Greatest Showman universe: It’s full of snobs and killjoys and realists, who are lined up alongside bigots who protest the circus because it is “an abomination” and critics who sniff at what goes on in the ring because it “isn’t art.” (This movie has the most broadly drawn wet blanket of a critic I’ve seen in a movie, exceeding even Birdman’s vicious character.) Who would want to live in that real world, populated with those people?
Not Barnum, and not us either, the movie wants us to believe — at least not if we’re the right kind of audience. As Barnum is assembling his circus, someone asks him if he isn’t ashamed of peddling the fake and phony to his audiences. Barnum shoots back a question: does it even matter if something is real, as long as it brings smiles to people’s faces? (And puts money in his pockets, of course.)
Cinema isn’t real, of course — it’s all faked for our entertainment. But right now there’s something especially uncomfortable about watching a character based on the father of entertainment spectaculars praising exaggeration, falsehood, and ignorance for its pure pleasure value, reality be damned. It’s populist! It’s for the people! There’s an element of class struggle in his pronouncement, and throughout the movie; the circus is “low,” the opera is “high,” and ne’er the twain shall meet. But in the end, don’t you have more fun at the circus than the opera?
The Greatest Showman wants to work on the circus’s level, not the opera. The critic is here to stand in for anyone sitting out in the audience with a skeptical look on her face. “Buried in your bones there's an ache that you can't ignore / Taking your breath, stealing your mind / And all that was real is left behind,” Jackman sings, willing us to just give in and abandon skepticism and live a little. It’s a movie about dreams! About letting go! About all of humanity!
Okay, sure. But then why is The Greatest Showman trying so hard to sidestep everything human? The most charitable way to interpret what The Greatest Showman is doing is flipping the script on Barnum, letting the “freaks” take a tale that had to be full of suffering in real life and make it their fight song. A PG-rated, family-friendly circus musical of course can’t afford to dive too far into the depths of Barnum’s real history. It’s repainted itself as a tribute to the outsiders, to the dreamers, to those who’ve always felt like they’re on the outside and finally find a home among one another, rather than in seeking the approval of others. (In other words, it’s a musical for theatre kids.)
But the movie can’t risk offending anyone too much, so the thornier parts of the story are abandoned for cartoonish villains (wealthy parents, bigoted torch-wielding protesters) and a caricatured plot. Most baffling of all — in a film set in the 19th century that clearly wants to be about expanding our notions of what is “acceptable,” and finding ourselves in the process — is how it sidelines some of its most interesting characters. Zendaya (whose father is African-American) is not the only actor of color who appears in the circus, but she is more or less the only one who gets to speak, and even then it’s only in the context of a budding romance with Carlyle. There’s a moment where it seems like the movie might approach her parents’ clear dismay at not just her station but her race, but it backs away hard and is never raised again.
To demand some kind of historical responsibility from a movie like The Greatest Showman borders on ludicrous. And just in case we start feeling annoyed, the movie serves up the critic character again to shame us into turning off our brains. It moves so fast and drives so hard that it’s not till after it’s all over, and we stagger out with a backbeat hangover, that it seems like some very important questions the film raises have gone entirely unanswered in the glow of the circus lights.
There’s about a half beat at the end of the film that suggests Barnum has now realized that reality isn’t all bad. But he hasn’t given up his love of illusion either. And behind all the songs, the dance, the romance, that’s what The Greatest Showman turns out to be: one big, empty show.
The Greatest Showman opens in theaters on December 20.