Growing up as a boy in rural northwest England in the 1990s, certain opinions are thrust upon you from an early age: The South is rubbish, Wales is where people go on holidays and the whole world revolves around Manchester and Liverpool. Oh, and musicals are for girls and arty types.
All of these things are, of course, pure baloney. The South has plenty of charms, Wales is a proud country with a freaking dragon on its flag and there’s more to this world than Oasis or The Beatles. And musicals have the capacity to entertain one and all.
I first discovered this in 2012, upon meeting the woman who, as of a week and a bit ago, is now my wife. She introduced me to her favourite movie, a rather raunchy, madcap movie from 1976 called The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was bizarre, confusing and, much to my surprise, great fun. But that movie will be reviewed another day, dearest reader, for there is another musical which has received all manner of press that we watched a little more recently, 2017’s musical circus biopic, The Greatest Showman. This review will hopefully paint a bit of a picture of my feelings toward it and whether you should see this one or not, if you haven’t already.
Phineas T Barnum – Hugh Jackman
Michelle Williams – Charity Barnum
Zac Efron – Phillip Carlyle
Zendaya – Anne Wheeler
Rebecca Ferguson – Jenny Lind
Keala Settle – Lettie Lutz
Penniless young lad Phineas Barnum and his father enter servitude for a wealthy family on America’s East Coast, where he meets his masters’ daughter, Charity. He grows up with more than a spark of imagination, the kid is practically living in his head, wondering at all the great things his mind can accomplish when unbound from monetary needs. Then, before we know it (and before the song even ends) he’s a grown man who looks suspiciously like Wolverine, living on a rooftop apartment in New York City with Charity, now his wife, and their two daughters, whom are ever dazzled by his acts of whimsy and tall tales.
After a seriously dodgy act of forgery, Barnum is able to get a loan from the bank and finally begins to build his dream, a strange museum full of stuffed exotic animals and a guillotine, among other things. Yet nobody is interested, it’s not looking good for our hero at all, at least until one of his girls has a great idea, put some actual living entertainment in his show!
And so, despite the outrage of the prudish masses, he roams the streets of the city, tracking down, as he puts it, “persons of interest”, those who have unique looks and skills that nosy people would pay to see.
Having amassed his motley crew, including lithe trapeze artist Anne Wheeler and the powerfully voiced, sassy powerhouse that is Lettie Lutz, aka The Bearded Lady. The circus takes off, despite being divisive, and Barnum starts to eye up ever bigger audiences, forming a business alliance with foppish society sweetheart Phillip Carlyle. One thing leads to another and before we know it, our hero is off to London, to meet Queen Victoria no less and with his entourage in tow.
Whilst there, he is captivated by the beauty of Swedish opera sensation Jenny Lind and, sensing an upcoming opportunity, forms an alliance with her. Together they take America by storm, their great success coming at the expense of the rest of the circus, who inevitably feel put out and abandoned, despite Carylyle’s hard work to keep their spirits up.
One thing leads to another and, after fall outs, tears and a few redeeming moments, as well as a bit of fiery drama, Barnum drops the singer and ends up back in with his old crew, ending the movie with the same powerful, soaring song that the movie began with.
It’s a classic redemption story but it’s incredibly well told, we’re rooting for Barnum all the way until he begins to fall for his own hype, turning vengeful and bitter thanks to the all too often poisoning effect that money has on one’s personality. The end of the movie is the payoff, the joy of seeing him realize what he’s done and seek forgiveness is hard to beat, though maybe the moment where he gains his final redemption probably comes close.
Set Design & Effects
The sets of The Greatest Showman are all physical, enhanced by computer generated effects in the background or used to flesh out certain areas. For instance, the square in which the original circus sits has digitally added buildings, trains and weather effects, though the main chunks of it are a physical set.
Overall it’s all stitched together well, the illusion is rarely broken but, when it is, it’s pretty jarring. I mean come on, the story of the real Barnum being just awful to his animals are well known, and I’d like to think that using entirely CGI beasts in the movie has helped, in some tiny way, to cosmically balance that bad deed, but man, the computer generated animals are quite noticeable! The lions and elephants that parade around during The Greatest Show at the beginning of the movie look a little behind the curve in turns of modern effects, they’re certainly no dinosaurs ala Jurassic World that’s for sure.
The worst graphics in the movie are, however, occurring toward the end of the movie, during the From Now On musical number, when Barnum hitches a lift on the back of the fakest looking train I’ve ever seen, it looks like something from an older video game!
Yet, for all of this obvious CGI, it all somehow works when viewed as a whole. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a musical, that The Greatest Showman adheres not to total realism but, instead, the spectacle and colour of the boards. In a play one is expected to suspend one’s self of disbelief, to instead use your imagination to fill the gaps, to make that big cardboard house into a real brick and mortar one, or transform two men having a pretend sword fight into a real, life or death battle. Just like these examples, I found my imagination more ready to accept that the train, and Barnum’s poor animals, were the real deal, even if they clearly weren’t.
In short, the sets are lusciously designed and full of detail, augmented by mostly good CGI, though the odd patch of questionable effects are there, they are somehow easier to forgive, possibly thanks to the fact that this movie follows the sensibilities of a stage production.
As the highest billed actor and main character in The Greatest Showman, we would be remiss to not begin by looking at Hugh Jackmans’ portrayal of famous circus magnate PT Barnum. Just like in most movies in which he appears, the Australian actor really gives the role everything he’s got (I mean come on, Wolverine was by no means the worst part of Origins!) As Barnum, Jackman oozes charisma, charm and enthusiasm, drawing the viewer along with him into the story. When things turn sour, and Barnum turns his back on his crew of unique performers to hang around with Jenny Lind, Jackman proves that he can do ugly just as well as charming, really coming off as a self obsessed, arrogant boor during this portion of the movie. I genuinely found myself loathing the man at this point in the movie, such are Jackman’s skills in front of the camera. Oh, and his singing and choreography are both excellent too. In particular, his singing during the movie’s main song, The Greatest Show, is really powerful and heartfelt.
The rest of the cast are equally as impressive, with special mentions going to Zac Efron, as businessman Phillip Carlyle and Zendaya as Anne Wheeler, the talented trapeze artist who he falls for. The very best of the rest, however, is The Bearded Lady herself, Lettie Lutz. Played by the very talented Keala Settle, Lutz is a strong, proud woman who acts as a mouthpiece for the disenfranchised and shunned members of the circus who find their joy in entertaining the masses. Her song This is Me is a really stirring number and even made it onto the radio here in the UK.
The Greatest Showman has a strong cast, capable of acting, singing and dancing alike, led by the ever brilliant Jackman as Barnum himself.
As a musical, this movie lives or dies by its tunes. It’s no good having all of the colour and fantastic acting if the songs are all rubbish, after all.
Thankfully, The Greatest Showman really delivers on this front too. Each of its eleven songs are well written, choreographed and sang, even the slower ones that aren’t usually my speed were enjoyable, stirring the necessary emotional depth. Interesting fact, the first dance at our wedding was to Pinks’ cover of A Million Dreams!
My favourite songs in this musical go to the intro/outro spectacular The Greatest Show, a rousing, high energy piece involving all of the performers, plenty of stunts and those aforementioned CGI animals that you can’t help but at least tap your foot along to. Just behind this one for me is The Other Side, a catchy tune in which Barnum convinces Carlyle to abandon his life as a socialite and join him at the circus. It’s fast paced, has brilliant snappy lyrics and the choreography is very impressive, of course Jackman and Efron really shine in this song too, practically singing off against each other.
Needless to say, the soundtrack is perhaps the strongest part of this musical, not one of the songs left me cold and some of them are even on my driving playlist these days!
If you like musicals, biopics, drama, history or comedy, there’s truly something here for everybody. Hugh Jackman leads a talented cast, where even background players ooze personality, and when I say talented I mean that they sing, dance and act like they were born to it, it truly is a fantastic feat from all involved.
The soundtrack is excellent, with songs that energize, inspire and, of course, make us sad for a bit too as the plot dictates. As I said earlier, there isn’t a weak number among them. Visuals are decent overall, with vibrant looking sets that are well showcased with strong camera work and direction. Just a shame about the odd bit of dodgy CGI really, as it can look a little jarring in places.
Phineas T Barnum’s story is an interesting one, a roller coaster of ups and downs that kept me interested until the end credits. But he’d be nowhere without his performers, who are a joy to behold in this movie and steal some of the best bits. Kudos also to Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum, the ever loyal but upon wife who struggles to keep hold of her increasingly arrogant husband as the plot goes on.
A truly excellent package of a musical, enough to turn this cynics’ head and maybe interest me in future movies from this genre, give it a watch if you haven’t already!
Overall Score: 8.75