Saturday, November 2, 2019


Films: The Greatest Showman
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on The New Portable.

I bluntly do not understand it when someone makes a biopic and makes completely unnecessary changes. In the case of The Greatest Showman, the changes I’m talking about are not making this into a musical. As musicals go, this one is decent, if not exceptional. The songs are pretty good, and it follows the standard musical progression of reprises and songs of varying tempo and power. If you’ve seen a musical, The Greatest Showman hits all the beats you’re expecting. I don’t think that P.T. Barnum spent his life singing his feelings to other people, and I’m not suggesting that the movie has a reality problem because of that. No, the problem is much more ridiculous.

The problem is the character of Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). In the movie, Carlyle is a playwright who is acclaimed but seems genuinely unhappy. P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) convinces Carlyle to ditch his easy society life and work with him and his collection of sideshow attractions and circus performers. So what’s the problem? Phillip Carlyle is entirely a fabrication. Barnum’s actual partner was a guy named James Anthony Bailey, who, when he met Barnum, was already the manager of a circus. Why do this? No one thinks the circus was called the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Carlyle Circus.

In fact, not only is Carlyle entirely a fabrication, so too is his love interest in the movie, African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). It’s a decidedly modern piece of theatrics to give us an interracial couple at this point in history, which is roughly just after the American Civil War or so. It’s never really stated outright, but it’s clearly before the turn of the previous century and evidently post-Appomattox. So an interracial couple would be a huge scandal, and will also play to a much more sympathetic modern audience. But, like the existence of Phillip Carlyle, it’s all a sham.

Anyway, the story that we’re told is that Barnum was a poor child who, almost to spite her father, falls in love with a rich girl. Eventually, Barnum grows up to be Hugh Jackman and Charity grows up to be Michelle Williams, and the two run off together. Barnum loses his job when the company’s assets all sink in the South China Sea. Barnum arranges for a dubious loan and opens up a museum, which then more or less become a sideshow with a variety of acts. We’ll get glimpses of these now and then, but aside from Anne Wheeler and her brother, the only two we’re really going to deal with are Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle). There’s going to be a whole middle section about how Barnum is making a living off these folks but more or less refuses to be seen with them in public.

There’s also a whole plot point about Barnum meeting singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and arranging her tour across the States. There’s intrigue and romance and all sorts of people wanting the “freaks” out of New York because they are intolerant and yadda, yadda, yadda. You’ve seen this before, and seen it more entertaining when it was called Hairspray and done by John Waters in the 1980s.

Here’s the thing—I won’t take the production value away from The Greatest Showman at all. This is big and showy and blustery like a giant musical should be. Because it is, and because it has that sort of true production value, a great deal of it (mostly the musical numbers) work in spite of itself. The story is very simplistic and almost obvious in places. This has the beats we expect exactly when we do. When we’re do for a song reprise, well, we get a song reprise. There are no real surprises here, and we’re sure that there are no setbacks that P.T. Barnum or his wife, or Phillip Carlyle, or the troupe of performers/attractions can’t overcome with a heartfelt song and giant dance number. That’s sort of the function of this kind of movie.

I always want to like the movies I watch. I always go into them hoping that I’ll be entertained by them and will walk out the other side happy to offer a recommendation. Musicals, admittedly, have a tougher road with me than do many other genres of film. But I do want to like them. The Greatest Showman, outside the production values, is very disappointing. The characters aren’t that interesting because we don’t really get a great deal about them. What do we really know about Carlyle, for instance? He comes from money and pursues a forbidden affair. And that’s pretty much it for the entire film. Everyone else is that way, too. This has the depth of a dinner plate.

The songs are good. The production values for many of those songs is also good. The movie itself, though, borders much on the melodramatic. It desperately wants to be meaningful and relevant, and would probably have been better of just striving for good and entertaining rather than the host of social issues it evidently wants to cure. No shame in trying to do good, of course, but there’s a difference between raising a social issue and hitting people over the head with it.

Why to watch The Greatest Showman: Production values.
Why not to watch: For as good as the production values are, it feels like a cinematic “This way to the egress” sign.


  1. Alas. This film has been in my queue for a while; it was recommended to me by one of my brothers. I was ready to approach it as something like an extended take on the old "island of misfit toys" segment of that animated Christmas special about Rudolph, i.e., a story preaching the heartwarming message that everyone belongs somewhere. Sounds as if I'm in for a disappointment.

    1. Your mileage may vary--I know a lot of people who liked this a great deal.

  2. I'm sure I've stated before that I love musicals. Also I'm an admirer of Hugh Jackman's musical ability, Michelle Williams's acting talent and too a lesser extent Zac Efron who, when he isn't mired in the brainless trash he squanders his time on with disturbing regularity, is quite gifted musically. Then there were rapturous recommendations from several people I know who had seen it multiple times before I'd seen it even once. So I went into seeing it, on DVD, with very high hopes.

    Well I won't say those hopes were dashed but they certainly weren't met. I can't fault the three main performers who gave their collective best effort. Perhaps I should have seen it in the theatre for which the musical numbers were clearly designed. Watching them as I did they were elaborate but empty spectacle which added in with the glaring inexactitude of the storylines, which probably bothered me more because I knew Barnum never had an affair with Jenny Lind, Carlyle was factitious etc. whereas most contemporary viewers don't, made for a frustrating watch.

    I also found the lack of context dealing with Carlyle's and Anne Wheeler's relationship both annoying and distracting. Color blind casting is terrific IF the time period or story allows it but this one most definitely does not. In Show Boat, set in relatively the same time period, Julie LaVerne and her husband Steve are banned immediately from the boat and any sort of public appearance by the sheriff because miscegenation was illegal and she was merely a quadroon who was passing for white. So these two who were clearly interracial would have been run out of any Southern town, and probably had problems in the North if not outright been banned from entering the States. But what we get is no reaction at all. I understand it's an entertainment not a history lesson but come on.

    Overall it was okay but I have no desire to watch it again.

    1. Your problem with Carlyle and Wheeler is exactly the problem I have with it. You don't have to scratch me too hard to discover just how happy I am for socially relevant content in entertainment, but it has to make sense. In this case, there would not be a person anywhere approving of that relationship at the time. Even her brother would strongly object to it. And while we can look at it in our current enlightenment and sagely nod at how we (and the couple) are right and everyone else is wrong, it's nothing more than cheap pandering in this film made worse by the fact that a large chunk of the audience won't know, understand, or care about the reality.

      It commits the worst sin I can think of in a movie. It's lazy. I can accept bad if it's a sincere bad. I can even respect it. But this sort of cheap stroking of the audience's moral conscience is low because it is lazy and because it's easy. It's a cheap applause line, like a comedian telling the audience to clap for the person who introduced them or their servers.

  3. I tried to watch it and I couldn't get into it. Plus, I hated the songs as it just reminded me of everything that I hate about today's popular music right now. It's so fucking lazy.

    1. If you haven't read my response to the above comment, you'll find that I've used the exact same word to describe the content of the film.

  4. Man, did I hate this movie and I do like musicals. We have enough com artists around today for me to want to invite one into my living room. Why do a bio pic of a man and his love for his wife when I'm real life he did not bother to show up for her funeral? And the we are all an inclusive family when Barnum used people was the cherry on this BS sundae. Net it will not make it into the next edition.

    1. I honestly don't know how it made it into this version. There are better choices from the last couple of years.