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The Greatest Showman is a musical with some inventive visuals and mostly brainless story. Were it not purporting to conflate P.T Barnum of all people to sainthood, I could probably watch it and dispose of it in due course. However, because this is P.T Barnum, one of the world’s foremost charlatans and con men, well, let’s just say that the idea of venerating him, sticks in my craw. Already this year, Hollywood has pretended that Winston Churchill was an inspiring, cuddly granddad and frankly, P.T Barnum is, for me, a bridge too far when it comes to revisionism.
Fans of the comedy/history podcast The Dollop know the real P.T Barnum. In a live recorded episode in Barnum’s adopted home of New York City, hosts Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds laid bare the legend of P.T Barnum in all of his phony, humbuggery, glory. As Dave wove the tale of P.T Barnum, from his time taking advantage of an aged, black woman whom he purchased from a fellow con man, to the time he fooled people into believing he’d procured a mermaid which turned out to be a horrifying combination of a monkey sewn to the body of a large fish, P.T Barnum is revealed in The Dollop to be a villain over and over again, no matter how willing and even entertained his victims may have been.
So, yes, I went to The Greatest Showman with a chip on my shoulder and one that remained there throughout the faltering run of witless pop anthems passing off mediocre messages of empowerment centered on a man who would have sooner been caught dead than be seen as anything other than above the people who bought tickets for his own show and especially above those who were performing for the price of that ticket.
Hugh Jackman’s version of P.T Barnum is smarmy and ingratiating which is an apt portrayal of Barnum, but as directed by first time feature director Michael Gracey, he’s a mostly neutered creature. Here, P.T Barnum is just a good-hearted dreamer, who takes a few shortcuts along the road to wealth and fame and still finds himself wanting. The P.T Barnum of The Greatest Showman is a striver determined to be wealthy and successful and, more importantly, accepted as the equal of the moneyed-elite from which came his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams).
P.T’s determination leads him to create show business and call it the Circus, a phrase coined by a crotchety, joyless newspaper critic, after the circuses of ancient Rome. It was not a complement, though Barnum, not being a student of history, adopted the phrase anyway and made it his own. After initial struggles, the circus becomes a success thanks to the talents of Barnum’s menagerie of fascinating people including the Dog-Faced Man, the Bearded Lady and the world’s fattest man.
Soon however, P.T’s desire for status leads him to recruit Broadway producer, and member of the upper crust, Phillip Carlyle to come aboard and be his circus partner. P.T hopes to use Carlyle’s connections to get the respect he feels he deserves. For his part, Carlyle, played by Zac Efron, decides he wants in on the circus biz after falling in love at first sight with Barnum’s trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). The love story between Phillip and Anne is strained by both class and racial differences.
Strained is kind of a funny word to use here as what strain we see in the Efron-Zendaya plot isn’t really all that taxed. The two sing a song about how they would need to “Rewrite the Stars” to be together and then, well, they’re together. Nevermind that this this is the 1800’s and Zendaya would not have been allowed on stage in New York City at this time, we have a feel good love story to tell, history just gets in the way. I might be willing to go with this if I thought that Efron and Zendaya had a real spark but their sappy tune never really gets going and neither performance has any real bearing on what little plot there is in The Greatest Showman.
Indeed, despite my description, there isn’t a whole lot going on here. The film is far too divorced from reality to be anything historic. Take away the history and what you have are a bunch of mediocre to pretty good songs that act as exposition to push the plot forward or filler to help sell soundtracks. For me, all of the lame pop pap just ran together until I could barely tell where one song ended and the next began. It’s a shame, the songs came from the same people who helped in creating the music of La La Land in 2016, a soundtrack I just can’t get enough of. Here, they are just spinning their wheels inventing dim romantic ballads and power pop empowerment that should move volumes in soundtrack sales and little more.
The soundtrack to The Greatest Showman is just bland and inspirational enough to be a hit and if the movie happens to become a hit, I guess I wouldn’t be all that surprised. It’s a movie that is built for an ambivalent mainstream audience that is just bored enough to tolerate 100 minutes of old fashioned hokum dressed up with a dash of modern pop.
The Greatest Showman has far more in common with P.T Barnum’s notion of a mermaid than it does with the great art of the movie musical.