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Fun and fiction over facts in ‘The Greatest Showman’

News Desk
News Desk

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Sat, December 23, 2017 | 10:01 am

Music video maestro Michael Gracey’s directorial debut recounts how long-famed entrepreneur and show business pioneer P.T. Barnum arose from humble beginnings to create what is now known as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Hugh Jackman plays the lead role in a fantasy version of the circus impresario. Barnum is a young street kid who eventually marries his long-time friend and high-society woman, Charity (Michelle Williams). Very little time is devoted to the struggles of Barnum’s early life, and it seems as though success comes quick after he cons a bank into giving him a huge loan, which he utilizes to establish the Barnum Museum. The movie later sees him attempting to garner highbrow adulation — seemingly with a vengeance against those who oppressed him when he was younger — by hiring esteemed playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and presenting Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) on tour.

Those who have studied the life and ventures of P.T. Barnum would probably be quick to argue that the two-hour-long biopic fails to adequately present facts on the big screen. For instance, according to the film, Barnum was a kindly savior to the small army of human misfits he recruited for the circus, including a bearded woman (Kealla Settle) and a dog-faced boy. He taught them how to love and accept themselves by providing them a home in the form of his circus.

Historians, however, consider Barnum as an exploiter of misfits rather than one who ennobled. For a greater sense of what the movie is missing, one might note that the movie failed to stage Barnum’s campaign of the 13th Amendment on behalf of the Union in the Civil War, among other illuminating details from his autobiography.

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Despite its colossal nonfulfillment of historical truth, The Greatest Showman makes for a fairly lively and fun-filled holiday musical. Jackman’s enthusiasm starring as the self-proclaimed “Prince of Humbugs” is abundantly evident and yet another ode to his excellent showmanship. Equally, if not more enjoyable, is the massive score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — the acclaimed, Oscar-winning duo behind the lyrics for last year’s “La La Land” — which ranges from defiant pop anthems to melodramatic ballads. Audiences will relish in Keala Settle’s passionate rendition of the Oddities anthem “This Is Me” and Barnum’s musical pitch to Carlyle to join the circus. Moreover, Efron’s vocals on some of the tracks are sure to serve as a nostalgic throwback to his High School Musical days.

In summary, the film is structured as a series of music videos with bits of Barnum bio clumsily thrown in. Characters aren’t fleshed out and their roles seem largely unfulfilled. While the exuberant songs and dance numbers make The Greatest Showman wildly entertaining, the movie misses contemporary or even historical resonance. Gracey misses an opportunity to stage the complexities of Barnum’s life in favor of superfluous subplots and quintessential musical clichés. This ambitious attempt at a Barnum biopic is a perfect example of how an incredibly talented cast and thrilling soundtrack can’t save an undercooked plot. 

For those interested in an original musical, and the song and dance that comes with it, go and watch it by all means; but if you’re looking for honest and comprehensive insight into the controversial visionary that inspired much of circus entertainment today, look elsewhere. (afr/kes)