The Greatest Showman (2018) (a film review by Mark R. Leeper).

‘The Greatest Showman’ is a largely fictionalised and very glitzy account of the life of Phineas T. Barnum who went from suffering severe poverty to being one of the richest men in the world as the inventor of a new art form, the American circus. It dramatises several of the more familiar incidents of his life and career, including his introductions of General Tom Thumb, his bearded lady and the tour of opera singer Jenny Lind. Fanciful in its production, this is a ‘spiced-up’ version of the life of P.T. Barnum as he builds his empire on imagination and dream.

Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

‘The Greatest Showman’ was written by Jenny Bicks and directed by Michael Gracey. Their hands turns the story into a musical imaginative extravaganza with 21st Century Broadway singing and pyrotechnic dancing. The story centres, of course, on Barnum and his ever-faithful wife and his dealings with his so-called ‘oddities’, who would have been called by the less pleasant name of ‘freaks’. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman, seems to make every effort to make his circus a bigotry-free environment for his oddities but, in the end, he may have prejudice of his own.

There is not as much attention given to Barnum’s American Museum as there is to his circus. In an alchemy, not really explained by what we see on-screen, the screen Barnum just happens to run into perfect oddities for the real-life Barnum’s exhibitions, a circumstance Barnum would have envied. They appear perfect without them being developed *and* made up and he can immediately see them as they will appear on-stage. At his first glance at his future bearded lady, she looks exactly how she will look on their stage.

Bicks’ screenplay returns repeatedly to issues of prejudice, lookism, sexism, snobbism, bullying, and racism. It is a surprising volume for a single film. While Barnum defends his oddities from the bigots and bullies, we see him later in a different light. Barnum himself is not free from similar prejudice on a higher level. Jackman as the famous Master of Ceremonies, adds a lot of class to the performers on the stages. Jackman does not look at all like Barnum, but he will do until a better one comes along.

The American musical has been foundering since the 1960s. We are not getting more musical plays like ‘The King And I’ or ‘My Fair Lady’. ‘Moulin Rouge’ is not much of a substitute, much less ‘La La Land’. Occasionally, a new musical comes along giving us a successful musical and there may be a few more as a film comes along to test the waters. ‘The Greatest Showman’ would probably not have been released but for the successful recent ‘La La Land’. The irony is that while ‘La La Land’ probably enabled ‘The Greatest Showman’ to be made, the latter is by far the better musical. I rate the film a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. The proper name for the film should have been ‘Barnum!’ but there has already been a successful Broadway musical of that name. ‘The Greatest Showman’ is available on streaming and disk.

Mark R. Leeper

© Mark R. Leeper 2018

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