The directorial debut for Australian director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman is a heartwarming and dazzling musical spectacle inspired by the fictional real-life story of P.T. Barnum, the American businessman and famed founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Barnum is brought to life by virtuoso Hugh Jackman, who injects his effervescent charm into the role of a poor tailor’s boy turned circus ringleader and showbiz extraordinaire. But the movie is based on a fictional narrative, as it serves mainly as a musical of new songs, and ignores much of the controversial nature of Barnum’s life.
The movie kicks off with the first number ‘The Greatest Show’, an explosive opening with powerful beats sung by Barnum leading the circus ensemble, but soon the echoes of the cheering crowds fade away and we are transported to America in the 1800s.
A young Barnum is smitten with Charity (Michelle Williams), the daughter of a wealthy family, and they reunite in their adulthood to lead a humble yet joyful life with two daughters. Barnum however remains insatiable and constantly desires a better life for his family.
After being laid off, Barnum takes a unwise risk by deceiving the bank for a loan and acquires the Barnum American Museum. Due to the meagre ticket sales, Barnum is inspired by his daughters to turn his venture into a showcase of unusual human oddities and “freaks”, which successfully begins drawing large crowds. These include the Bearded Lady, African-American acrobatic twins, and a dwarf nicknamed General Tom Thumb. Naturally this comes at a cost, as the circus is faced with harsh critic reviews and local protests. Barnum is labelled as a swindler, earning a quick buck off dazzling audiences with ingenuine hoaxes.
It’s a glossing over of Barnum’s business practices in real life, much like how Disney removes much of the drama and horror of fairy tales when it produces its animated movies, but the movie serves as a foundation of who and what the eccentric businessman was, as well as his circus crew.
Instead, we end up with a loveable and, in its own abstract manner, relatable group of outcasts, which anyone who has ever felt different could instantly connect to. These talented and unique individuals who have always been hidden in the shadows, and abused time and time again for who they are and what they are born with, are catapulted suddenly into the spotlight, and celebrated for their differences.
You would think Barnum might finally be satisfied with his new riches but no, he yearns for more. He engages renowned playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to help grow his enterprise, who ends up falling for the acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Their romance is a pleasant side-plot that grazes the issue of race at the time, with Carlyle’s disapproving white parents treating the African-American Wheeler with disdain. The chemistry between the two former Disney stars is electric, culminating in the standout flying trapeze duet ‘Rewrite the Stars’.
Blinded by his quest for recognition and universal love, Barnum eventually comes to realise that he had built a small but tight-knit community in the circus, and was already surrounded by family and friends who appreciated him for who he was. This is aptly expressed by the lyrics in the tune, The Greatest Show, “It’s everything you ever want; It’s everything you ever need; And it’s here right in front of you.”
At 105 minutes, this movie flies by with not a moment feeling draggy. It is jam-packed with entertaining musical numbers, stunning costumes, and well-coordinated choreography, and there’s a reason why – the music and numbers were written by Pasek & Paul, the duo behind the chart-topping soundtrack of the award winning La La Land. The juxtaposition of the old-fashioned 1800s time period with the modern dance-pop tunes seemed strange at first, but the music is infectious and addictive, guaranteed to leave many seeking out the soundtrack and singing along after watching the film.
Special mention goes to the song ‘This is Me’ sung by the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle), which is an empowering anthem for the downtrodden to embrace one’s differences and face adversity head-on. A veteran of Broadway and musical theatre, Keala Settle is this film’s breakout star with her powerful voice and moving performance.
Although described as a biographical film of P.T. Barnum, it takes a generous amount of artistic license when it comes to his life story. Historical accuracy is sacrificed for more appealing plotlines and showmanship, which is perhaps analogous with the movie’s key theme. It ends with a quote by Barnum: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” Even though The Greatest Showman may not be a comprehensive retelling of Barnum’s complex life, it can still bring a smile to people’s faces with its heartwarming rags-to-riches story and messages of empowerment, acceptance, and courage, and that is a noble thing indeed.