You know there’s been a massive shift in the way Hollywood views musicals when a blockbuster Christmas release is marketed on the back of lyricists. The Greatest Showman, Hugh Jackman’s first film post-Wolverine, is a musical “biopic” of circus pioneer and American showman P.T. Barnum. It’s songs are brought to you by the team of lyricists that worked with composer Justin Hurwitz to make La La Land’s magic last year. The Greatest Showman is, by no means, another La La Land. That film was one of strongest films in every aspect of the last few years. The Greatest Showman can be heavy-handed and overly earnest, but it’s well-meaning and charming and-in the end-your opinion of the film probably will rise or fall with how much you like those songs touted on the movie’s poster.
FOX released the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman a month before the film hit, so I had the weird experience of walking into the film having had the movie’s songs in my head for a month. The question was going to be was I going to like the film that connected them as much as I liked the songs. Since the first trailer came out, Keala Settle’s “This is Me” has been playing in an OCD rotation in my head, and it’s a crime if it doesn’t win Best Song, but there are at least five other songs in the movie’s soundtrack that have stayed in my mental rotation. Hugh Jackman was a song and dance man before he was cast as Wolverine, and it’s good to see him return to his roots in a film that’s overall more likable (if not as well-made) as Les Miserables.
The Greatest Showman is directed by first-time helmer Michael Gracey, and it definitely does feel like a director’s first film. Though stylish and well-shot, the movie dithers on some of its subplots and really feels more of an excuse to get from song to song rather than having those songs be an organic part of the film. So, again, how much you like this film is going to depend on how charming you find the musical set pieces, and I found them to be extremely charming (especially “From Now On”, “Rewrite the Stars”, and “The Other Side”).
One of Hugh Jackman’s greatest assets of an actor is an innate likability, and he has that turned up to 11 for his performance as Barnum. Make no mistake: if you’re looking to The Greatest Showman for a factual portrayal of the American icon, you are in the wrong place. If find that eminently forgivable, because (a) the film isn’t really trying to provide you with a comprehensive look at his life and (b) Barnum would have thoroughly approved of this twinkling version of his life, being the world’s biggest fan of appearance over reality. The supporting cast is strong with Rebecca Ferguson, Zac Efron, Zendaya, and-especially-Keala Settle in a breakout performance. The one off-note in the cast, I thought, was Michelle Williams who doesn’t have the vocal chops of the rest of the ensemble and was a bit over-the-top as Barnum’s wife.
The Greatest Showman is flawed, but ultimately a family friendly, fun stylish musical with some truly great songs that overcome most of the film’s faults. One of 11 films released Christmas weekend, The Greatest Showman isn’t going to be the breakout success that La La Land was, though it did get several Golden Globe nominations. Check out some of the songs on YouTube and if you’re a fan of Jackman’s take a trip to the big top and give The Greatest Showman a shot.