This IS the Greatest Show!
I sometimes wonder how “proper” UK film critics view films early for review. Is there a ‘special screening’ which all the film critics attend in London? The point I’m getting at is whether the collective critical opinion of a movie can be swayed by a critic leaping to their feet and wildly applauding a film like “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” or, alternatively, snorting in derision at a film like “The Greatest Showman”. For sometimes the critics seem to get it massively wrong across the board, panning a film that the general public will adore. Unfortunately, this has the effect of putting the general public off seeing it, especially in the lethargic post-Christmas period. I think here is a case in point. It’s not the best little film in the world, but as a musical crowd-pleaser it delivers in spades.
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.
As I’ve said, 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.
Fad Rating: FFFF.