By Daniel Howat
P.T. Barnum is a fascinating individual. I only know a small bit of his life story, and it could make for a tremendous and expansive biopic. The Greatest Showman has no interest in telling that story. It’s merely interested in getting us from one musical number to the next. And honestly, I can’t fault them too much for that, since the music is by far the best thing about the movie.
In The Greatest Showman, Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, the founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. After growing up in poverty and homelessness, Barnum dreamed of making it big somehow. Failure plagued him for many years until he finally discovered how to trick people into paying for a larger than life show. Rather than explore the controversy that comes with his show, they brush over the compelling ideas to make room for the music.
“This Is Me”, “A Million Dreams”, and “Never Enough” are songs I’ll surely be listening to for the next few weeks. Pasek & Paul’s songs are full of heart and joy. They’re hopeful and exciting. They’re performed really well. You can tell that the cast had a blast together. Hugh Jackman gives a dedicated and exciting performance. He’s always a dynamic and charismatic performer and doesn’t phone it in for a second here. Michelle Williams is charming. Zac Efron and Zendaya make a nice pair. It’s a lot of fun to watch the cast singing their hearts out.
But the musical style feels completely detached from the film itself. Rather than writing music that might fit the period, they chose to write songs to emulate pop songs. But even still, the songs cover a wide variety of current genres. There’s some hip-hop, stomp-and-holler, and straight pop. With a wide variety of genres, the music lacks a cohesive feel. Most of the songs are truly great! But they feel quite odd within the context of the film.
Maybe that wouldn’t be as big of a problem if the music wasn’t intended to be actually happening within the plot of the movie. But when the crowds are singing along to their modern pop anthems, it feels pretty odd. This is especially noticeable with Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) performs for the first time in the film. She’s a world famous “opera singer” who proceeds to, rather than sing a slightly operatic track, sing a pop ballad. It was very weird.
That was just one of the oddities in this film, but there are plenty of others. Like the character of Charles Stratton, played by Sam Humphrey. His voice was completely (and poorly) dubbed over. He was enhanced with CGI lips to match the dub. It felt very random and was distracting everytime he was on screen.
I kept wishing throughout the movie that the story was even half as interesting as the music. There are moments when it seemed like they might be starting down an intriguing path, but they would soon revert back to musical tropes. For instance, in a scene when Barnum might finally be accepted by the New York elite, he shuns the “freaks” that he’s been fighting for. He pushes them out the door and slams it in their face. Rather than having to reconcile for this terrible behavior, they never address that moment again. Bland writing kept me counting the minutes until the next musical number.
It’s this inconsistency that plagues The Greatest Showman throughout. I noticed twice where it sounded as though the actors were singing live. Those were the best, most authentic moments in the film. But, as happened a lot here, they did away with it quickly and dubbed the rest of their tracks, not always very well. There was precious little authenticity in the movie, and it left me cold.
There are far worse films than this. Though it couldn’t quite reach the heights it wanted to, The Greatest Showman still has those excellent tracks to keep you invested. Magnetic performers are often fun to watch. Still, a great soundtrack doesn’t necessarily make a great film. “The Greatest Show” this was not.
Make sure you listen to the soundtrack for the movie ASAP. But should you see it in theaters? Probably not. Rent it if you like musicals.
Final Rating: 5/10