Movie Review: “The Greatest Showman” Pulls Back the Curtain on P.T. Barnum

By John Lynch

2017 seemed to be the year of the musical movie. From Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (during its wide release and Oscar nomination) to Disney’s reimagined Beauty and the Beast to Pixar’s visual masterpiece Coco, last year brought some excellent music to the silver screen. The Greatest Showman is no exception to this trend, albeit with decidedly less lasting recognition and more generic music. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, who wrote much of the music of the aforementioned La La Land, wrote the music of The Greatest Showman, and the consistently great lyrics from their past work are on full display, though the performers of the music deserve nearly as much credit for the finished product. The lyrics are not terribly clever or specific to the setting of the musical, so they feel more like BIllboard 100 bait than actual things the characters would say in context to their actions. Thankfully, the cast, which stars Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Michelle Williams, Jessica Ferguson and Kaela Settle, executes the music with enough bravado, emotion, and heart to make the seemingly generic music feel authentic to their characters.

In the starring role of Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, Hugh Jackman nigh carries the film on his impeccable charisma and chops as an singer and actor. Jackman works incredibly well in this role, more so than I thought he did as Jean Valjean in 2012’s Les Miserables. The music complements his voice exceptionally well: The opening (and closing) number, “The Greatest Show” is a legitimately thrilling opening that only works because Jackman inhabits the character of Barnum so well. The only problem with the cast is how underutilized the majority of the characters feel. In a film about the birth and subsequent rise of the “Greatest Show on Earth”, only two of the movie’s eleven original songs feature any of the actual “freaks and oddities” Barnum employs in his troupe. This is especially disappointing given how talented the supporting “freak show” cast truly is- Kaela Settle in particular deserves a huge amount of credit for her part as the bearded lady Lettie Lutz in the song This is Me, which won a Golden Globe for best original song in a movie. In focusing on the main plots of Barnum’s rise to fame and his partner Philip Carlyle’s romance with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Played by Zac Efron and Zendaya, respectively), The Greatest Showman feels a bit thin on songs about what it’s characters claim to be “The Greatest Show”. Oddly enough, this is not the reaction I initially had when leaving the theater. When I first exited the movie, I thought it was a stunning visual and musical achievement with a truly inspiring plot. Truth is, I really think most of that is still true in retrospect- I haven’t stopped listening to the soundtrack on Spotify- but in retrospect the plot, though inspiring enough, is just a bit bland compared to its colorful source material.

The real shame of The Greatest Showman may be what it failed to include. Despite all its musical energy and themes of accomplishing your dreams no matter how society views you, the movie takes almost no real risks with its characters or actually realizing the idea that no matter who you are, you can be special. Outside of the main characters of Barnum, Carlyle, Anne, and Charity Barnum, the actual contents of the show itself are poorly explored, in both plot and character. The actual circus itself that Barnum built his legend upon is given precious little screen time, and the performers themselves almost as little. In the end, for all its talk of inclusivity, the plot still makes the most important (and potentially entertaining) parts of the circus, its spectacle and its performers, feel like mere background to a rags-to- riches story and a fairly generic star-crossed lovers story.

Through all its flaws, The Greatest Showman deserves a look should you have the time or interest in a less-than-perfect musical spectacle anytime soon. Thankfully, Hugh Jackman never ceases to amaze in his ability to carry a film, and is helped by great music. All told, The Greatest Showman earns 3/5 stars from this writer.