Spoilers below for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, although if you’ve heard the soundtrack I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know.
Confession: I love musicals. Theater, film, three-minute videos: I love it all. In my twenties, I managed to see Cats–that infamously plot-free extravaganza of pop music, poetry, and dancers with claws–no less than three times, once in London. I’ll put up with all kinds of drippy nonsense from a performance if it’s got a good soundtrack and some solid dance numbers.
So of course I expected to be the perfect audience for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, even after it received mediocre-to-bad reviews.
I heard the soundtrack first, and I’ll confess, I developed some biases from there. It’s a damn good set of pop songs, Hugh Jackman can actually sing, and the lyrics have some real substance. As a friend of mine pointed out, every song can be heard as a coming-out anthem, a fist raised to the world in joy and defiance, a declaration of the power in the face of a society that does its level best to destroy all differences.
Based on the soundtrack, I suspected I knew where the film had gone wrong. I assumed they’d used racism and ostracism as an allegory for the modern experience of many LGBTQ+ people. I expected this was done with earnestness, as so many such narratives are, and like other attempts their take had turned out far too obvious. Racism and ostracism are both current social problems; using them for historical allegory isn’t really a thing that can work.
I was prepared to forgive it all of these things. Good intentions and all. Plus: Hugh Jackman singing. (Am I really that shallow? …Kinda. Yeah.)
As it turns out, though, I was giving the film far too much credit. Because the problem with THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is not hamfisted social commentary. The problem is that it’s bland.
It’d be easy to attribute the issue to the massive number of characters and small stories the movie tries to tackle in an hour and forty-five minutes, forty of which are taken up by musical numbers. But it’s the execution that’s the issue, not the complexity.
Some of those small stories, with a little filling out, might have been interesting: Lettie, a woman with excessive facial hair and an extraordinary singing voice, learning that she has great things to offer the world; Charles Stratton, cynical and suspicious for damn good reasons, finding a place where his unusual appearance can be a real asset; Anne, accomplished and independent, falling in love with someone on the other side of an unbridgeable social gap; Carlyle, a rich dilettante who starts off wanting to be entertained and learns what he really wants is to escape the rigid structures that are all he’s ever known; and of course Barnum himself, who may let the working-class chip on his shoulder prevent him from finding any real joy in his successes.
These are all workable character bits. Trite and predictable, perhaps, but trite and predictable can be made charming in the right hands.
The movie, however, doesn’t even give us trite and predictable: it gives us sketches, little bits of dialogue in between lavish musical numbers. We get more story in those musical numbers anyway: in particular, “The Other Side,” a duet between Jackman’s Barnum and Zac Efron’s Carlyle, is the only place bar the ending where we see some of the dynamic between the two men, the sort of father/son I-dare-you-kid dynamic that would actually have been fun to watch. Somebody knew there were character beats buried in this mess.
But there was no time for all of them, and instead of paring things down, the movie chooses to skip across the surface like a pebble. Barnum’s priorities are finally straightened out when his wife gets mad at him. Anne gives Carlyle a chance after he nearly dies in a fire. Lettie and Charles…well, we don’t really get resolution there, except to see that they stay with the circus even as Barnum hands his day-to-day responsibilities over to Carlyle, who’s stood up to his odious parents about Anne and has suffered no visible social consequences for it.
I mean, yawn. There is no meat here, just a sentence or two describing what meat might be like if anybody cared to go find any and stick it in the film.
Having said all of this…bland is not boring. The film’s too short to be boring, and many of the musical numbers really are wonderfully staged. Additionally, the acting is uniformly quite good. There’s Jackman, of course, who knows what he’s doing even without the grizzled look and the claws coming out of his knuckles. He’s got quite a nice baritone, and he manages to do some acting while he’s singing, which is not as easy as it sounds. Zac Efron manages to sell Carlyle as privileged, young, and good-intentioned, albeit ignorant of the real world. And Zendaya–who, like all of the women in this film, was mostly there to react to the men–did a tremendous amount with very little, showing us Anne’s dignity and steel, and even convincing us that she could fall for someone like Phillip Carlyle (at least once he grew a spine).
And yes, the songs are marvelous. (Interestingly, as far as I can tell the only principal who didn’t do her own singing was Rebecca Ferguson, who played Jenny Lind.) The music is from the same composers who wrote for JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and LA LA LAND, among others. It’s a solid, anthemic, Broadway-ready score, with a few real standouts.
But a score shouldn’t be the thing that carries a movie. You could literally watch the officially-released music videos for the soundtrack, and you’d have seen 80-90% of the interesting parts of the film.
And…I guess I’m recommending you do that. Or better yet: buy the soundtrack and blast it in your car on your way to see a revival of Cats.