Creating an original musical is hard. Creating one for the big screen is even harder. Hugh Jackman (‘Logan’, ‘Les Miserables’) has been pursuing one of his own since 2009 - a musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum, the nineteenth-century impresario who created the Barnum & Bailey Circus. After jumping plenty of roadblocks, the fruits of that passion project are here in ‘The Greatest Showman’, with Hugh Jackman at the centre as Barnum, and Oscar and Tony-winning song team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul providing the songs. Yet all those years to dream and prepare don’t quite result in the magic they may have hoped for.
The film follows Barnum from childhood, through poverty and hardship with his wife Charity (Michelle Williams, ‘Wonderstruck’, ‘Blue Valentine’) and two daughters, to his idea to found a museum of curiosities in New York. He assembles an ensemble of unusual persons with uncommon physical features, earning the attention, praise and scorn of the city. With producer Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron, ‘Baywatch’, ‘The Paperboy’) behind him, he works to make a name for himself and his "circus", and prove he’s more than his underprivileged background would suggest.
‘The Greatest Showman’ drives forward aggressively on its goodwill and enthusiasm, but none of this can save the film from itself as it basically self-implodes over an hour and forty-five minutes. There’s bad, and then there’s films like this - so spectacularly misjudged and mishandled that it ends up being a wonder to behold. Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s screenplay removes any of the interesting or controversial elements of Barnum’s story and instead concoct a fantasy about a Great White Saviour who, with ambition and imagination, singlehandedly solves issues of race, discrimination and social stigma in 1800s America, with a respectful and loving wife who, regardless of what he does, will always be there for him. We move from cliché to cliché like a train thundering over broken tracks, with no idea where it’s going or what it wants to say. Jackman is clearly going for major spectacle, with lavish sets and ‘Oliver’-sized crowds, but handing it to first-time director Michael Gracey is an enormous mistake. He simply cannot handle the demands of this film, from its scale to trying to solve the problematic screenplay. The film looks flat, the editing is choppy as hell, even with six editors, and for a film relying on music as a storytelling tool, has almost no consistent rhythm.
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Which brings us to the songs, perhaps the biggest misstep of all. Rather than going for a more classical musical approach, Pasek, Paul and Jackman have pushed for a more contemporary pop feel. The resulting songs are bad. Like… really bad. The lyrics are woeful, the melodies are without any personality or originality, and they serve almost no purpose in the story. It’s as if they were dropped from a height to splat with a thud on the screenplay without any attempt to make them work, inane and generic "hit single" pop songs rather than integral elements of the storytelling. I mean, these guys are the lyricists of ‘La La Land’ and composers of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’, for fuck's sake. There’s almost no cohesion between the songs, the screenplay and the score, all working against one another with a grating inconsistency. In fact, the film is better when no one is singing. And then there’s the treatment of women, mostly relegated to plot points or objects to be possessed. When Charity finally gets a solo, the film spends more time cutting away to Barnum building on a potential infidelity than actually focusing on her and her agency.
The problem is, Barnum is a bit of a dick, a whiny social climber who switches between an everyman and an elitist at a moment's notice. Shockingly, Jackman delivers one of his worst performances, lacking in subtlety or detail. His performance is all wide-eyed, high emotion and sweating from extreme effort. He also lacks any charisma at all, exemplified when Zac Efron turns up and basically walks away with the film. Efron and Zendaya (‘Spiderman: Homecoming’), who plays trapeze artist Anne, have some lovely chemistry, but they’re only given time to show it in another dismal duet amongst many others. Williams tries her best, as does Rebecca Ferguson (‘Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation’) who plays an opera singer - who sings, you guessed it, a generic pop song - but they’re basically not given anything to work with. The ensemble that make up Barnum’s troupe are given a little bit of attention, but their unexplored stories would be far more interesting than this arrogant selfish twat who keeps using his young daughters as an excuse for his attempts to stroke his own ego.
There’s bad, and then there’s films like this, so spectacularly misjudged and mishandled that it ends up being a wonder to behold.
‘The Greatest Showman’ really is a sight to behold. Fellow SWITCH reviewer Chris and I spent a lot of it stifling laughs behind our hands and gasping at each unintentionally camp flourish. I wish I hadn’t been in public so I could more vocally react to it, so delicious was its mediocrity and incidental camp. Chris walked out beaming from the atrocity of its existence and I walked out with headache and a lot of questions (mostly, why?). This is a film of enormous ambition but no vision to guide it, an aggressively earnest film with no idea how to harness that energy. Creating an original musical is hard, but Jackman’s passion project is exactly how not to do it. It might be a cult classic in the making, but I very much doubt it. As Chris so eloquently put it afterwards, its the #instagay version of a musical - purely aesthetic, vapid, attention-seeking, and devoid of personality.