Saturday Features

A spectacle of delusions

Michael Gracey’s new musical drama The Greatest Showman is so bland and sanitised that you come away learning astonishingly little about the man whose life it is based on, the times he lived in, his work, or anything about anything at all

Jan 13, 2018-If Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) had one defining quality, it would be the staunch determination to not let his circumstances limit his dreams. This applies to his love life too…despite being the son of a poor tailor, he’d fallen for and managed to eventually whisk away the beautiful Charity (Michelle Williams), under the chastising eyes of her well-to-do father. And now that the couple have brought two apple-cheeked little girls of their own into the world, Barnum wants to give them everything he’d never had. Of course, he knows he’ll never get there working this mind-numbing clerking job, and deciding he needs to take a leap of some sort, finagles a loan to buy an old, musty “museum of curiosities.” But Barnum soon realises that wax statues and stuffed animals are not to the public’s taste: real-life attractions are where it’s at. So he goes about collecting living oddities—including a bearded lady (Keala Settle), the diminutive General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), conjoined twins (Yusaku Komori and Danial Son) and an African-American trapeze team (Zendaya and Abdul-Mateen II), among any others he can round up with some kind of “exotic” physical difference.

At the speed of montage, then, Barnum’s show goes on to become a hit with the paying punters of 19th century New York, the gallery packed to the rafters every night. Not too long after, however, upon receiving a bad review from a newspaper critic for the lowbrow quality of the production, our hero begins to feel desperate to expand his appeal to the upper crust. To class up the joint, he brings uppity playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) into the fold, as well as persuading a Swedish singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), to perform for him. The effort does help embed him in high society, but success comes at a cost: All the while he was striving for the approval of the wealthy masses, Barnum appears to have forgotten who it was that helped him get to where he is, and what it was all for in the first place. 

Generally, while writing one of these reviews, I have to put some effort into locating the broad beats of a given story so as to sum it up without giving away too much of the details. But with the rather self-aggrandisingly titled The Greatest Showman—the feature directorial debut of visual effects artist Michael Gracey—that proved easier than usual, because that’s all there is to this musical drama: broad beats, very little detail. Based on the colourful life of politician, businessman, and showman PT Barnum—who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1871—this should’ve, in theory, made for an interesting enough watch. But screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon have created a script so bland and sanitised, and so very shallow, that you come away learning astonishingly little about the man in question, the times he lived in, the nature of his work, or anything about anything at all. 

Despite its decent run-time of around an hour and 45 minutes, The Greatest Showman feels very rushed, leaping from milestone to milestone in Barnum’s life, conflicts cropping up at regular intervals only to be resolved with almost comical ease by the end of another song. While I’m not saying historical accuracy is absolutely necessary, it’s also a darned shame to take a story like that of Barnum’s and strip it down to a generic rags-to-riches template. This was, if you didn’t know, a man who proudly made a living peddling such disturbing and questionable stage offerings as an African-American slave whom he claimed was George Washington’s nurse (she wasn’t), or the creature he called the “Feejee Mermaid” (just Google it)—just some of the many “hoaxes” he put over on the public back in the day. 

Let alone question Barnum’s morals, the film actually has the gall to paint him as some sort of patron saint of diversity. We watch as he heroically rallies together a group of performers whose genetic disorders and differences have relegated them to the margins of society, and gives them a home of sorts, a place where they are encouraged to embrace who they are, in what feels like a long, vague, repetitive lecture on the importance of inclusion. But while it is perhaps true that being part of the show gave his employees a sense of confidence and belonging they might not have previously enjoyed, to talk of them without any attempt to consider their exploitation, or indeed that of the animals Barnum included in the performances, is a glaring omission. The film also tacks on a flimsy, half-hearted attempt to depict the state of race relations in those days through a romance between Efron and Zendaya’s characters. All this conspires to make The Greatest Showman seem hopelessly deluded, a sermon about empowerment and individuality that is as superficial as it is simplistic. 

That superficiality extends to the music here, too—by the team behind 2016’s La La Land, comprising Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The soundtrack is mostly a collection of overwrought and very derivative pop ballads, with lyrics largely limited to the “be yourself” variety that seem to have been lifted straight from the pages of a standard-issue motivational self-help book, none of which are remotely memorable. And the novelty of the anachronistic gimmick at the centre—of having actors in a period setting performing contemporary songs à la Moulin Rouge—wears thin fairly quickly, distancing us from the narrative. 

That brings us, finally, to the actors, those poor, poor wretches stuck in roles that have been divested of any personality, reduced to the barest of stereotypes—including that of Jackman, for whom this was apparently something of a passion project. Though he loads up on that famous charm and demonstrates some fancy footwork, it’s just not enough to transcend his poorly-written, textureless part, a struggle for pretty much everyone in the cast. The gang of performers suffers the worst, though: None of them have been given anything resembling a decent backstory. I’d give this overproduced mess a miss if I were you. 

Published: 13-01-2018 08:31

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