In a year with no Baz Luhrmann movie, ‘The Greatest Showman’ fills the gap with a big, brassy, unashamedly over-the-(big)-top circus musical with one eye on the multiplex and one on the pop charts. As befits an origin story for legendary American impresario, entrepreneur and snake oil salesman PT Barnum and his troupe of talented oddballs and outsiders, it’s low on subtlety, high on spectacle and crams its poppy, hummable tunes so far down your ear holes you’ll need a Q-tip to fish them out.
First-time director Michael Gracey packs the big numbers with visual snap, but this is the Hugh Jackman show all the way. The Aussie engages likeability, hips and vocal chords to haul us into the film’s rich nineteenth-century fantasia and Barnum’s giddy journey from scrappy outsider to wealthy circus master. The story swaggers forward in a swirl of choreographed pop numbers by ‘La La Land’ songwriters Pasek and Paul as Barnum recruits his novelty acts. This ‘X-Men’ meets ‘America’s Got Talent’ posse includes Keala Settle’s bearded lady, Zendaya’s acrobat and Sam Humphrey’s diminutive Tom Thumb. Standing between his circus ‘freaks’ and showbiz stardom is an angry mob of protesters and Paul Sparks’ frosty theatre critic, a snobbish cipher for high society’s contempt for Barnum’s rowdy new art form.
There are obvious parallels in all this with the culture war currently waging in America, and between the grasping, PR-savvy Barnum and Donald Trump, but Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script tacks carefully around them. There’s no appetite to turn over the stone to see what lay beneath this master of hokum, either. Instead, we’re washed by waves of empowerment and dialogue that feels lifted from a motivational postcard. But it cuts only one way when it comes to the two women in his life. As his loyal wife Charity and her love rival, opera star Jenny Lind, Michelle Williams and Rebecca Ferguson are landed with frustratingly dull and underwritten roles. Tellingly, we always learn more about Barnum than either of them during their encounters with him.
But while it may not be strong on nuance and the story moves with all the careful pacing of a human cannonball, it’s got gusto and verve in abundance. An old-fashioned musical with a none-more-zeitgeisty songsheet, it may not be a flawless piece of storytelling, but it’s a pretty decent show.