Thanks, LA LA LAND (2016)! Now musicals are coming back!
… I say, as if it’s a bad thing. Not that musicals are anything that I leap at the opportunity to see, but as I keep telling people around me: it’s not about the genre, it’s about the story. So long as it has good characters, then it’s up my alley.
The story looks like it’s about this man who used to have a stable, albeit boring, job, but then it filed for bankruptcy and he had to be let go. But one day, entertaining his kids, he comes up with a cirque du soleil type thing, showing off bearded ladies, little people, Siamese twins, the works.
Here’s the cast. Starring, we have Hugh Jackman (LOGAN , PRISONERS , FLUSHED AWAY , and upcoming films THE FRONT RUNNER  and BROADWAY 4D ), Michelle Williams (WONDERSTRUCK , OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL , BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN , and upcoming films ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD  and VENOM ), and Zac Efron (THE DISASTER ARTIST , NEIGHBORS , 17 AGAIN , and the upcoming THE BEACH BUM ). In support, we have Rebecca Ferguson (THE SNOWMAN , LIFE , HERCULES , and upcoming films MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT  and THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING ), Zendaya (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING ), Austyn Johnson (this is her debut film, but she’ll be featured in the upcoming THE POST ), and Cameron Seely (TV shows: 1 episode of MADAME SECRETARY [2014 – ongoing] and 22 episodes of THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW [2015 – 2016]).
Now for the crew. The director is Michael Gracey, making his directorial debut, but he’s slated to direct the upcoming NARUTO, no release date announced. Co-writing the screenplay are Jenny Bicks (RIO 2 , WHAT A GIRL WANTS , 9 episodes of TV show THE BIG C [2010 – 2013], and the upcoming BARBIE ) and Bill Condon (DREAMGIRLS  and CHICAGO ). Co-composing the score are John Debney (HOME AGAIN , SIN CITY , MY FAVORITE MARTIAN , and the upcoming BEIRUT ) and Joseph Trapanese (ONLY THE BRAVE , STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON , OBLIVION , and the upcoming ARCTIC ). The talent behind the musical numbers are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, both known for LA LA LAND and TROLLS (2016). Finally, the cinematographer is Seamus McGarvey, known for LIFE, THE AVENGERS (2012), HIGH FIDELITY (2000), and the upcoming BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018).
Overall, I’m not super stoked or anything, but it does look like a gorgeous film with a lot of energy and a lot of fun.
This is my honest opinion of: THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
Based on true events set in the 1800s. The story follows Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum (Hugh Jackman), who started off life in a poor and disrespected household. As a young boy, he fell in love with his father’s employer’s daughter, Charity (Michelle Williams), who would eventually give up her lavish, high society life to be with him. They would eventually have two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). Despite his enthusiasm that he would give back Charity’s rich life after working hard, he hasn’t succeeded yet. Things are only made worse when his job goes bankrupt and he has to find another job. Soon, he’s given the greatest of ideas. A circus featuring people often considered freaks, but he finds absolutely compelling. After some serious effort, his shows are a hit, making him wealthy and making good on his promises of luxury and comfort. But as his shows become the talk of the town and the world, the excitement starts to go to his head and he begins to forget what he was doing all of this for.
It’s another rags-to-riches, American dream story. It hits all the beats associated you can guess in a movie like this. Having said that, I liked it. It’s energized, catchy, addictive, and a whole lot of fun.
Front and center is the impossibly charming and charismatic Jackman, who gives 150 percent. Barnum is this guy who refuses to be put down, either by financial woes or social belittlement from the wealthy and critical. I especially love how he turns insults into positive reinforcement. Like when critic James Bennett (Paul Sparks) calls his acts a “circus,” Barnam likes it so much that he takes the insult and makes it part of the official name. I also love how his charm isn’t acknowledged in the story either. Like when Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), she’s completely skeptical of him and his intentions with his act. But as the two kept talking and he’s talking her up, she slowly buys into his charm and charisma, which I really enjoyed watching.
But if there’s anyone that surprised me the most here is Efron. Generally speaking, I’m not his biggest fan. He’s never given a performance that I believed ever warranted his popularity. I know, the High School Musical movies, teen heartthrob, I got it, but those aren’t exactly “acting” movies. It’s just to showcase that he can dance and sing. Sure, he’s done a crap ton of movies where he doesn’t sing, but he’s got a lot of critically panned films under his belt, and what few I’ve seen, I’ve never been impressed either. NEIGHBORS (2014) is the closest it ever gets with me, but it wasn’t him I necessarily liked it for. This is my favorite performance I’ve seen him give. I see a person. I see a young man, born and raised in high class environments, but is unhappy with his successes. He takes what his peers would describe as a social suicide, but in turn, finds passion, romance, and meaning. Efron really brings it home, and while he’s still by no means my favorite actor in the film, nor is Philip my favorite character, both are in their own way, highlights. Bravo, Efron.
The music is also pretty catchy and wonderful, easily the best soundtrack this year. My favorite has to be “This is Me.” Being someone who has to deal with depression a lot, especially as of late, one’s self-esteem and self-perception has a tendency to take a gigantic hit. This is a song that does a great job uplifting my spirits. You should see the comments on Youtube for the lyrics. I’m not alone in this, so you know this movie’s doing something right if people are feeling better about themselves. To hell with the critics, if you ask me. Other great numbers include “A Million Dreams” and “Rewrite the Stars” stand out the most for me. Even if the music and lyrics aren’t as memorable, the choreography can make up for it. Like, “The Other Side.” I can’t remember a lyric, or a beat from that song, but I absolutely adored the choreography. I mean, there’s only so much creativity that you can put into dancing on the bar and jumping on chairs, but I thought the incredible inclusion of sliding shot glasses across the counter was particularly amazing. However, as Barnum and Philip are drinking so many shots in such a short amount of time, I wish they’d have incorporated drunkenness, possibly slur some words for comedic effect, something to help it feel more distinguished. But for what I got out of it, it was effective and highly enjoyable.
However, even I can’t deny that there are problems with the film.
As previously mentioned, the story itself is absolutely nothing new. Person starts off dirt-floor poor, has dreams of getting rich, gets rich, loved ones warn not to get blinded by wealth, gets blinded by his wealth anyway, loses loved ones, learns a lesson. It’s about as copy and paste as a story can get. So there aren’t any real surprises in that regard. There’s a romance between Philip (Zac Efron) and Anne (Zendaya) that does that, we should be together, but we can’t because of our social class, but you know they’re going to end up together by the end. It feels pretty unnecessary because that’s already the story with Barnum and Charity. In turn, the film is greatly predictable, leaving no surprises or really taking any chances.
There’s also moments where the movie gives one song and dance number and then immediately jumps to another. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s noticeable and kind of exhausting when it’s over. As soon as “Rewrite the Stars” ends, there’s like one scene, two minutes long between Barnum and Charity, and then immediately jumps to another song, “Tightrope,” with Williams. This is especially bizarre as there is so little time between musical numbers and “Tightrope” is such a short and forgettable song, one would think it should have simply been cut. You wouldn’t have missed much. And some songs don’t even properly end, or it’s awkwardly continued. Specifically, the opening “A Million Dreams.” While a great song, and I love it, it transitions from young Barnum to adult and ends normally. We get a couple of normal scenes with acting and talking, but then at the conclusion of the daughters’ birthday wishes, the daughters start briefly singing it. It was starting to look like this was the only song the movie was going to give us. Thankfully that’s not the case, obviously, but it’s jarring nonetheless.
But the cardinal sin of the film is Barnum’s downward spiral. I don’t remember what exactly caused it. His circus is a success, he’s granted an audience with Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin), he meets Jenny, they do a show and tour together, and then… he just ditches the circus? He even uncharacteristically slams the door on his crew, as if he doesn’t want them to be seen. Um… where did that come from? Okay, fine, he’s always sought out the approval of the wealthy, hoping to see past his poor upbringing and to see the creativity and joy he brings to the masses. Fair enough, that’s explained. But all that time spent hunting down the social outcasts, seeing the beauty and the people behind their appearances, he’s always been so uplifting and encouraging of them. Why did he suddenly treat them like dirt? Him wanting to stay on the good side of the wealthy would be a really weak reason, in my book.
And, for the love of God, I love Ferguson. I really love this woman and her talent. Even if her movie isn’t good, I usually always like her. In fact, I’m upset I don’t see more of her movies. And it’s not like she’s bad here, or even given a small amount of screen time, but I really disliked Jenny. This woman is so shallow. Barnum is married. So when he turns her romantic advances away, she gets legitimately angry with him. Bad enough that she was trying to get him to cheat on Charity and tear his family apart, but she also has the gall to plant one on his lips after her final performance, in front of a giant audience with the press taking pictures willy-nilly, whichanyone could guess would bite him where the sun don’t shine. And she doesn’t care about the ramifications. I don’t even really think there was ever a proper establishing of this romantic tension between them, outside of the one scene where they almost kiss and she gets mad at his rejection. This was just a contrived reason to break apart Barnum and Charity, when the established reasons of him being away from his family and practically abandoning the circus would be reasons enough. That tension between him and Jenny was never properly developed, so everything seemed to come out of the blue.
Overall, this movie has problems. You can figure out every beat, every plot point, and know exactly where the movie is going to go and how it ends from the very first few scenes. There’s eye-rolling tropes, song of the songs are awkwardly placed, and character choices don’t always make sense. Ultimately, the story itself is nothing to write home about. But… I would be remiss if these issues outshone everything that I really liked. Jackman’s performance is infectious. The music and choreography is wonderful and memorable. While I won’t argue with a critic who doesn’t like the film, I can’t help but call this a feel-good movie. It put a smile on my face and kept me entertained. On that note, I’m giving this film a high recommendation, especially if you like musicals. It won’t make my top ten list of the year, but I wouldn’t mind either seeing it again in theaters, or owning it on Blu-Ray. Don’t be scared to go see this great feel-good movie.
My honest rating for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN: 4/5