Movie review: 'The Greatest Showman' is a lavish spectacle

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 02 2018 11:18 AM

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I know the name P. T. Barnum, but I did not know anything about the kind of man he was, nor what the story was behind the circus that bore his name. 

When I heard about that "The Greatest Showman" was going to tell about Barnum's life and career, I thought that should be interesting. The fact that this was a musical with original songs and starred Hugh Jackman in the lead role made everything even more exciting.

Phineas Barnum was a very poor boy growing up. Despite all odds, he was able to marry Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), the daughter of one of his tailor-father's rich clients. Even if his wife and two daughters seemed to be contented with the modest life they had, Phineas himself was obsessed with his dream of transcending his station in life. Phineas began with a wax museum of the strange and the macabre, but his idea really hit its stride when he developed a show that featured "freaks" as the main stars. But even then, Phineas wanted much more, and that was when success began to unravel.

While better known for this tough and violent action persona as the Wolverine, Jackman had been an acclaimed musical theater star first before he became a big movie star. Starring as Jean Valjean in the movie version of "Les Miserables" (Tobe Hooper, 2012), Jackman's musical talent became more widely known and appreciated by the non-theatergoing public. 

As P.T. Barnum, Jackman was obviously too old to have been realistic as the young impoverished Phineas, and this was distracting at the start. However, he would eventually grow into the role so well, such that this age disparity would later not matter. He displayed musical versatility, performing songs like "A Million Dreams" (with Williams and daughters), "The Other Side" (with Zac Efron), and "From Now On" (on his own) with flair and heart.

Efron played Philip Carlyle, a playwright from a rich family whom Barnum convinced to join his circus show to give it more "class." Carlyle was romantically attracted to trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (played by Zendaya), whose race and class was unfavorable to his family. It was good to see Efron back to the type of role he was first known for as a singer and dancer. You can still see some of his "High School Musical" dance moves here. His featured number with Zendaya with the song "Rewrite the Stars" as they took to the air on ropes was a romantic and dramatic spectacle thrilling to behold on the big screen.

Nine of the songs in the film's soundtrack were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the same duo won an Oscar for "La La Land" and a Tony for "Dear Evan Hansen." I am surprised that of all the melodic and powerful songs in the film, the only song being cited for awards is "This is Me" (not Demi Lovato's similarly titled anthem from "Camp Rock" of course). That song and its message is strong and positive, and the performance of Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz the Bearded Lady was mindblowing. But the other songs were also so very good, just one musical highlight after the other. From the bombast of the title song to the intimacy of "Tightrope," it is not fair that only one song gets all the attention.

For me, the song that mesmerized me the most is Jenny Lind's absolutely riveting rendition of the song "Never Enough" during her first concert in New York City. Performed with gorgeous elegance by Rebecca Ferguson mouthing vocals recorded by Loren Allred (a finalist on Team Adam of the "The Voice" Season 3), I was staring at the screen slack-jawed the whole time she was singing, and I wanted to give her a standing ovation right there and then. OK, Allred's singing vocals was not exactly the soprano Jenny Lind's real voice was supposed to be, but I was taken with the whole illusion of that scene.

I am sure there was a lot of cinematic license taken by the filmmakers to tell P.T. Barnum's story to make him as sympathetic a hero as possible, making others probably look worse than they actually were, but this never claimed to be an accurate biopic at all. 

Too bad the production and costume designed were totally snubbed at the Oscars. I thought they did well to create a realistic period setting and lavish spectacle of a show. I admit I am biased when it comes to musical films like this. I really liked this film a lot and I am definitely going to watch this again (and again). 9/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."