Director: Michael Gracey
A lot of critics had a lot of very bad things to say about The Greatest Showman, but mainly they criticised what it’s not. What it’s not is a serious biography of PT Barnum. It’s not subtle. It’s not at all fleshed-out or characterful.
While these are all points that certainly apply, they’re hardly valid criticism when the film itself shows not the slightest interest in hitting those particular markers. This is a movie where at one point plot exposition is relegated to a sign propped up in the background of a song. Almost all of the important storytelling beats, in fact, turn up during songs, a cinematic sleight of hand that leaves a contemporary musical like La La Land looking positively leaden by comparison. During an early sequence we see the young Barnum grow up fall in love, get married and have kids of his own – all during the course of one song. Meanwhile, a reprise (we’re big on reprises in The Greatest Showman) is sung by his daughter, closing the circle.
In the absence of all that stuff that isn’t there, The Greatest Showman gambles hard on its songs, and on the set-pieces that accompany them. First thing to say is that they’re anachronistic. Much has been made of a similarity to Moulin Rouge, partly for this reason and partly because of the look of the film, but any similarities are surface-dressing only. The Greatest Showman goes pop, but it’s songs are all original compositions. More importantly, Moulin Rouge is a cat film. Smug. Pleased with itself. The Greatest Showman is a dog film, bounding up to you, bursting with energy and eager to please, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the songs.
Simple test. Did you like ‘Let it Go’ in Frozen? If not, move along. But if you did you’re really going to like The Greatest Showman. Mark Kermode complained that the songs all ‘start big and get bigger’ but he could also have pointed out the frequent references to dreams and stars and taking your hand. He could have mentioned that every song is either ‘empowering’, life-affirming’ ‘heartbroken’, and often – this being the super-concise storytelling world of The Greatest Showman – all three at the same time, and he would have meant it all as a criticism, of course.
Me? I absolutely loved the songs. Which, because the film is essentially a delivery mechanism for the songs, meant that I absolutely loved the film. I think there are close to a dozen new songs in it, and there isn’t a bad or boring one, while I’d say that four of them are future classics. You’ve probably already heard ‘This Is Me’. It’s talked about as the film’s centrepiece. I’d argue not, but that’s as maybe. The fact is it’s a song that only appeared at the tail-end of last year and it already sounds timeless. The opening number, ‘The Greatest Show’, is surely destined to be a heavyweight boxer’s walk-on music, ‘A Million Dreams’ and ‘Never Enough’ will be attempted by a million YouTube and X Factor hopefuls. I don’t mean this as an artistic recommendation, more to make the point that these songs will endure. Sure enough, the director, Michael Gracey (no, me neither) does them proud, staging them brilliantly, filling the screen in such a way that there are time you think you’re watching in 3D. Jackman is just ace – really ace, a guy you’re rooting for even when he’s being a cad – Efron, Zendaya, Williams and Ferguson all do well just to maintain a presence.
And there it is. My case stated. The best fun I’ve had at the cinema since Mad Max: Fury Road – and Fury Road didn’t make me blub or laugh nearly as much as The Greatest Showman.
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