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Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Greatest Showman

(PG) ★★★

Director: Michael Gracey.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Paul Sparks, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

The cast for the new X-Men movie was off the hook.

Ugh, sorry, had to get that out of the way early.

People are going to love this movie but that, however, does not make it necessarily a good movie. And that's kind of the beauty of this film - it's exactly the type of humbug proffered by its lead character, the self-proclaimed greatest showman himself, Phineas Taylor "P. T." Barnum.

Barnum, or at least the version showcased here by Hugh Jackman, sought only to entertain and cared not for the vagaries of art or truth. So in a sense this is the perfect Barnum biopic. It wants to dazzle and entertain, and it doesn't want to bother with a proper story, serious themes, character arcs or development, or any fidelity to history or Barnum's life.

(This last point is kind of moot because most biopics play fast and loose with the facts, but it's worth noting this one is particularly fast and loose - something Barnum would have been proud of).

The Greatest Showman does entertain. Its songs, despite them ALWAYS YELLING AT THE AUDIENCE and being all cut from the same piece of pop cloth, are catchy and well crafted. It's impeccably choreographed, charismatically directed, and the majority of the cast is great. When the music kicks in, so does the fun. It's such a shame there isn't some soul/meat/heart/depth to go with all the glitz and glam.

For what it's worth, the film tells the story of the rise and rise and fall and then rise again of P. T. Barnum - the man who single-handedly invented the freak show, made a living off hoaxes like the Feejee mermaid (which isn't in the film), and is perhaps erroneously attributed with the quote "there's a sucker born every minute". We see him meet his wife Charity (Williams), become a famed showman, and risk it all for renowned opera singer Jenny Lind (Ferguson).

But, as previously mentioned, there is a distinct lack of story in this biopic. Important elements in the first act are skated over or almost entirely ignored. Barnum's youth gets mere minutes, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if it wasn't so integral to his character's motivation. The death of his father (at least I presume that was his father) gets about four seconds. Meeting his future wife Charity is dealt with in about a minute, and then there's a big song. This is not Batman or Jesus - ie. it's not someone whose backstory we've seen many times over already. Most people are meeting this character for the first time, and as such, it's a pretty flimsy introduction. Songs are important, yes, but so is introducing a character.

In fact, there are a lot of key elements to this film that seem to be brushed aside to make way for the songs. Take all the songs out of this and you're left with less than an hour of movie, which, given that the songs don't flesh out much more than feelings we already know the characters are feeling, isn't enough for as potentially complex a story as this.

It's not that the songs are bad either. Each of them is aiming for chart-topping, show-stopping status, which is why the film always feels like it's yelling. Every song is a REALLY BIG super-produced piece of epic pop, with a huge chorus. As such they all feel exactly the same. Sure, one of them sounds a bit Mumford & Sons-ish and another is Adele-esque, but all of them feel like the same kind of minor-key stomper destined to be wheeled out by melismatic divas on music contest reality shows when they really want to bring the house down. There is no real variation. It's a bit like watching Eurovision but without the ironic sense of whimsy and hefty self-aware slice of cheese to go with it.

And while they all feel like the same type of song, there are still some standouts. This Is Me and Rewrite The Stars are the picks of the bunch and the two most likely to earworm their way into your brains for days after you walk out of the cinema.

It's because of these songs and the associated cool choreography that people will like The Greatest Showman. It's the Moulin Rouge of this decade, albeit a less heavily stylised version - ie. it's the musical everyone loved at the time, but that no one really cares about 15 years later.

Part of the reason it's difficult to totally dismiss The Greatest Showman is Hugh Jackman. He puts his all into this role, and it's a marvellous performance. In fact, there are few weak spots in the cast. Zac Efron is a match for Jackman, as is Michelle Williams, who brings her usual level of quality. Keala Settle is the film's big discovery, and Rebecca Ferguson is also good (although Loren Allred deserves particular credit as Ferguson's singing voice on her big number Never Enough).

As good as these performers are, they're not really given the characters they deserve, especially Settle. In fact, there's a whole cast of interesting people in Barnum's circus and we don't get to know any of them at all.

Similarly the film dips its toe into some big questions, but never properly swims with them. Was Barnum just exploiting these people or did he genuinely care? Did working with Barnum improve their lives? Was Barnum just a conman or was he really "the greatest showman"? And then there are also the questions of race and ability peppered throughout the narrative that are only dealt with on a superficial level.

There is definitely an interesting film or seven to be made about the life of P. T. Barnum but this isn't it. This is a glitzy pop musical that's vaguely entertaining and really well made. Gracey's direction is good, the performances are excellent, and the songs will be streamed by the truckload. But there is a distinct lack of story to go with the glitz and glamour.

The Greatest Showman is exactly the type of biopic P. T. Barnum would have made about himself - forget the art and don't let the truth get in the way of a good story, but make sure you leave 'em smiling in the aisles.

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