Usually when you’re watching a film that ain’t great you can get a sense of what it came from. It feels like even if everything is tugging the celluloid in the wrong direction, at least it knows where it’s going. The Greatest Showman stakes its ground on contradiction, and never quite manages to overcome the conflict at its core. Or that which surrounds its core, or that which is splashed literally everywhere over the movie.
P T Barnum was not a wide eyed dreamer, nor was he an egalitarian saint. His intention in starting a freak show was not to confront the audience with our shared humanity, it was to make a quick buck. He did not merrily ride his elephants down the streets of New York, well maybe he did, but the animals in his shows were often poor abused creatures. The man was a slave owner and minstrel show advocate and in his 19th century way trampled over a fair few lives on his path to riches.
The film isn’t real of course, its sets are easy to read and the CGI extensions conjure this fantastical New York stretching shimmering streets running long off into the distance. There is no conception of space here, no travelling. Manhattan and the Hamptons are the same in this film because they are unified by a myopic perspective. A striving demanding need for wonder, which is to be found uniformly everywhere. In the same quantity, and of the same remark.
Wonder, apparently is what drives this Barnum to the outcasts and what drives them to him. The characters are inspired by the man looking at them, it is only through his lens that they may properly see themselves. And they sing songs to that effect. A lot of songs, that feel like so much dull weight around this movie’s neck as they carry on with as much invention and insight as an early 2000s Christian Rock album. They loudly proclaim that they are them, or that they see their dreams, or that their eyes are now open.
It goes on endlessly, almost every song a primal roar from the most milquetoast mouse you should possibly imagine. The lyrics lurching between being thuddingly obvious and total hot garbage, all whilst straining to keep our hero within the bounds of taste by stripping him of any motivation or personality. Barnum for all his wild proclamations about dreaming early on appears to be floating through his life, pushed by the wills into this or that next adventure, all the while surrounded by people who actually appear to have opinions on things.
There’s a haughty critic, an affectionate wife, and a worrisome business partner whose lives we are never granted access to because every single moment has to be the message. But what message, there’s no teeth to it. We learn of the importance of dreams but not their inception, we learn of body positivity from a group of people whose struggles we are not invited into. You gotta stay true to yourself but there’s no room to question the you that you are.
It’s a profound failure of messaging when the metaphors being thrown out could relate to literally anything. Like, this draws so heavily on the language of oppression, of queerness and of race but largely the whole thing is about a whole bunch of straight white people finding ways to manage their operant privilege.
Again, conflict, you can feel the gears of the enterprise grinding against each other. Maybe it’s something that could not have been overcome if not for the magnetic charm of Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron. They are two of the most beautiful men alive, both gifted performers and able to carry the enterprise with enough verve to save the entire thing from catastrophe. It’s been a few years since either of them have been singing on the screen and beneath the wild overproduction and obvious autotuning there is a soul and passion to their work here that blazes off the screen.
Even though Jackman’s voice is super unsuited the contemporary pop mould that it’s being forced into there’s something contained in there. Efron copes far better, turning on the buoyant youthful energy that he still holds despite being thirty years old now. The women in the cast aren’t served so well though. Michelle Williams and Rebecca Furguson (with a singing voice provided by Loren Allred) get the two blandest songs on the soundtrack and are largely confined to their roles as huge bummers in the life of our hero. And Keala Settle as the Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady, is so criminally underutilised given the power she exhibits here.
The only one who comes out looking good is Zendaya, because she gets one of the two songs that aren’t trash and are attractively choreographed. Let’s be fair: she is sidelined most of the movie, doesn’t really get a character of her own and only gets one song. But seeing her there in the moment with Efron as they do some sick shit on and around some trapeze ropes it’s joyous. It’s one of the few uncomplicated moments the film has.
In a few months, when this comes out on home video you’ll start to see clips of the songs appear on youtube. Watch The Other Side and Rewrite the Stars and you’ll have seen the best that this film has to offer. The moments when it manages to escape itself and become something that lives up to its name. And if from there you wanna catch the rest of it, sure but it’s gonna tug at you all along the way.
The Greatest Showman is currently screening in UK cinemas.