From its trailers, it was evident that the loose biography The Greatest Showman would sacrifice historical accuracy for a powerful message and much more friendly story than the truth of P.T. Barnum’s life. The plot and dialogue, although they send a powerful message, are cliched and predictable. These are the main criticisms of the film, and while they are valid, I believe that the historical inaccuracy and muddled writing of Showman doesn’t take away from its spectacular cinematography and soundtrack.
The movie begins with intense vocals, heavy percussion marked by the stomping of feet, and flashes of light and flames to fit the choreography of the opening song, The Greatest Show. After an ensemble of brass and strings join in, there’s a brief rest in the song, and then Hugh Jackman begins to sing his first lines. The choreography then picks up, and this is where the strength of Michael Gracey’s cinematography begins to show. Almost each second of The Greatest Show is to be marveled at, showcasing spectacular lights and fast-paced camerawork — allowing the audience to swallow in each second of the brilliant choreography and wonderful atmosphere. That being said, I don’t even consider the opening song the best, but it definitely sets a strong precedent for the rest of the soundtrack to follow.
Barnum’s backstory, although sweet and accompanied by talented child singers as well as their adult counterparts in the song A Million Dreams, was easily dismissed as a common rags to riches story, formulating Barnum’s character as a cliched one. As a side note, I’d like to mention that the strings and piano in A Million Dreams are absolutely phenomenal — the transition between the legato verses and their much more empowered chorus is near-infallibly smooth thanks to a hauntingly beautiful orchestral accompaniment.
Perhaps the best and one of the only good plot choices of The Greatest Showman was the inclusion of Barnum’s partner, Phillip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron. In the movie, Barnum is shown to be an upstanding and morally “clean” character, injecting the film with optimism. However, his character arc leads him down a path that takes him down a peg, whereas Carlyle is the exact opposite — Carlyle is introduced as an uptown snob, but redeems himself through Zendaya’s character, Anne Wheeler. This polarization between redemption and downfall sets a more complex climate in a movie that presents an oversimplified story. Also, Jackman and Efron’s catchy and contagious duet in the bar when they form their partnership, The Other Side, is absolutely brilliant, in both composition and choreography.
At this point in the film, I was sure that the quality of the songs had peaked and the movie had played its entire hand by showing its best songs first. However, I was in for an extremely pleasurable surprise. When Barnum starts to turn to the Dark Side and misbehaves, he finds his solace in a woman named Jenny Lind, played by the lovely Rebecca Ferguson. Jenny Lind’s character brings out the darkness in Barnum, as he turns his back on his circus performers and his family in order to spread Lind’s talent. In her solo, Never Enough, Loren Allred (the voice behind Jenny Lind, not the face) busts out an emotionally raw ballad, utilizing simple but beautiful refrains to captivate her audience both in and out of the movie. Although Never Enough is an inexplicably tear-welling song, Lind’s cries signify a melancholic turning point in the film — Carlyle and Wheeler’s characters become conflicted with each other during the song, and Barnum develops feelings for the Swedish Nightingale, Lind. The end of the song, despite being met with a standing ovation, ignites a series of conflicts that persist nearly to the end of the movie.
Having turned his back on his performers after teaching them to embrace their flaws and present them to the public, Barnum turns his back on his “freaks”, which results in the biggest and arguably climactic song of the movie, This Is Me. Keala Settle exercises her incredible vocal talent, detailing the struggle and hardship of her and her fellow performers, but ultimately spreading the message of acceptance. During the bridge of the song, there’s a really cool slow motion part that leads into the chorus that nearly took me out of my seat. I don’t want to elaborate too much on the song in fear of dissecting it to the point of ruining it, but the entire scene is one of the best in the movie, if not the best.
Hugh Jackman is a triple threat on the basis of his great singing, acting, and dancing chops. In Les Misérables, I was slightly let down by his performance, especially in the song Bring Him Home. When I saw that he was playing another male lead in another film musical, I had a knee-jerk reaction of worry. From the opening song, I realized I was dead wrong. However, his performance in his character’s redemptive song, From Now On, nearly inspired me to handwrite an apology to Jackman. From Now On has an excellent musical formula: a somber beginning set by piano and strings, a soft solo by Jackman fueled by emotion and poetic lyrics, then a climactic bridge that drags nearly the entire cast into the song.
Overall, despite its historical inaccuracies and sub-par plot, The Greatest Showman displays an extremely catchy and well-made soundtrack from start to finish, as well as a basic but important message about acceptance and redemption. In watching the movie and listening to the soundtrack, I only felt one weak link in terms of music (Rewrite the Stars). Although I consider La La Land a better movie both in plot and music, I believe that Showman sets the archetype for 21st century film musicals, as La La Land has a soundtrack and direction geared towards “Old Hollywood” while Showman embraces themes from modern music as well as a more exciting sense of cinematography.