A self-proclaimed ham, Hugh Jackman is more than a match for the real-life Phineas Taylor Barnum when it comes to showbiz stakes. He sings, he dances and he thoroughly steals The Greatest Showman. It is, indeed, largely thanks to Jackman’s bravura central turn, alongside some splendid choreography, that this almost entirely fictitious biopic is just about able to fly.
The story of P. T. Barnum lends itself so well to a musical telling that The Greatest Showman is the second adaptation to do so, after the Michael Crawford stage show. Not the raw Les Miserables type but the big, bold and beautiful ones of yesteryear; your Cabaret spectaculars. With the twee sugar coating of Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast and the toe tapping, modern musicality of La La Land, Michael Gracey’s film is an out and out crowd pleaser far more than any critical darling. That said, funnily enough, Condon is among the script writers here, whilst the songs come from La La Land’s Oscar-winning bards Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Barnum, founder of the 19th Century’s Barnum and Bailey Circus, had an insatiable character and was bestowed with a chip upon his shoulder from a childhood watching his tailor of a father belittled by wealthy customers. This is where the film opens, in the 1820s, before sliding in song-form to his adulthood and marriage to Charity (a slightly wasted Michelle Williams). When Barnum finds himself dismissed – from a job the real man never actually had – he is soon inspired to swindle a bank into investing in him and his purchase of a grand old American museum of waxworks. In this version of history, it is not P. T. but his daughters who come up with the concept of living acts in the museum after the models fail to attract.
There is, in fact, very little congruity between the factual life of Barnum and his cinematic counterpart; and yet, that does feel rather appropriate for the tale of a man who made his name through so-called ‘freaks’ and fakery. Indeed, in many ways the film is every bit as fake as the shows presented by the man himself. Much of the spectacle is clearly computer generated, whilst Rebecca Fergusson and Ellis Rubin gets the Lina Lamont treatment with singing voices courtesy of Loren Allred and Ziv Zaifman respectively. The rest of the cast may vocalise the catchy songs themselves but, unlike Jackman’s last foray in musicals, it’s blatant – by virtue of poor dubbing – that none of the singing took place on set. Which, of course, it seldom does.
However, to be too sniffy seems to be to entirely miss the point. As the film Barnum says, ‘do these smiles seem fake?’ Borrowing heavily from the Baz Luhrmann handbook, The Greatest Showman is Moulin Rouge for all the family and who cares if it’s all just a yarn?
Pasek and Paul wrote the film’s music prior to La La Land and it would be fair to say that the soundtrack here isn’t quite so coherently polished, with several weaker songs left out of the commercially released soundtrack. That said, their high notes bear an already trademark empathy for dreams and dreamers, with a number of lovely lyrical flows: ‘I think of what the world could be, the vision of one I see, a million dreams is all it’s going to take’. Likewise, the anthemic ‘This Is Me’ is an instant hit, of the variety you’ll be singing along to before the track’s out.
Each song is accompanied by choreography reminiscent of Mary Poppins – particularly a rooftop number – albeit mashed with a modern funk, whilst the viewing experience is often akin to watching the pop music video version of a Disney song. Seamus McGarvey casts a twee cinematographic vision that is pleasing to the eye, if never just as bold as Donald McAlpine’s for Luhrmann.
For all its historical liberties, The Greatest Showman is a spectacle that Barnum himself would be proud of.