I saw The Greatest Showman on opening day, Boxing Day 2017. There was only roughly 15 of us who were able to leave the comfort of our homes and drag ourselves to the cinema in central London. This was all before the film became the smash hit we know it to be today, mind you. I saw it because I was going to be reviewing it for a magazine. I gave it 3 stars, because that felt right. I recognised its flaws and how badly the story dragged at points, how bad the CGI was and how strange it all was.It wasn’t a great film but I had fun with it.
A month or so later, I bought tickets to a Singalong screening at The Prince Charles Cinema, thinking that’ll be a giggle; the songs were great and I had been listening to the soundtrack non-stop since that Boxing day so why not. The screening was on a rainy afternoon so I didn’t bother getting there too early, thinking there was going to be only about 30-40 of us kind of humming along, tapping our feet along the musical numbers.
I have never been so wrong in my life. The queue went around the block, people were dressed up as characters from the film and the energy was palpable. The screening was sold out, the director made an appearance and there were flashing lights, dancing and a lot of off-tune singing. We all had a blast. It was like a rock concert, everyone was on their feet and stomping, clapping, singing, dancing. This was the first time I started to realise what a phenomenon The Greatest Showman was becoming.
I haven’t seen the film since that rainy afternoon, scared that it would be ruined for me outside the comfort and darkness of the cinema, with its flaws fully visible to me. And then a day so awful came along, only a bit of Hugh Jackman could save it from becoming the worst day ever. So I popped the disc in and sat down, a little scared but mostly excited. Was it still the magical experience I had had twice almost a year ago?
For the most part, yes.
The Greatest Showman follows the idealistic P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, born for this role) who is hungry for success, but can’t seem to catch his big break. Opening his museum of oddities, Barnum finally hits gold, but starts to lose his way when no amount of success is enough and he leaves for a tour with a Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). It’s a sanitised, romatizised, utteer BS tale of Barnum, who was a much more complicated and problematic character than Jackman’s version of him.
The Greatest Showman is an odd film. It arrived after the smash hit La La Land, which made musicals trendy and popular again, so it doesn’t feel quite as fresh as it probably should, considering its lengthy production history. The Greatest Showman has one of the best opening scenes in a musical, possibly only matched by La La Land‘s highway dance extravaganza, but the film drags in the scenes between the musical numbers. There’s no heat, no electricity in the scenes where the characters are talking, they’re simply not very interesting. The story is glossy and not very true to life, all characters come across as a bit bland and strangely the film feels rushed although not much happens.
But the musical numbers, oh boy. They are fantastic. In these scenes, the film truly comes alive and sparks fly. The cast is so talented, it’s actually a little depressing since the film never becomes truly great as a whole. Jackman is perfect as Barnum, Zendaya brings some sass into her character Anne and it’s truly a delight to see Zac Efron flex his musical muscles again. Both Efron and Jackman are so charismatic and natural performers that it’s hard to believe it took this long to get the two of them in the same film. Their duet The Other Side is bursting with energy and joy, it’s a fun number where two of the best get to show off against one another. Only Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife seems to have drawn the short straw and doesn’t have much to do unfortunately.
And then there is Keala Settle, playing Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady. She sings the absolute tune that is This Is Me, an Oscar nominated song about self-acceptance. There’s a video online about one of the workshops where she sings it and you can pinpoint the moment she becomes a star, the moment she lets go of her fear and starts to believe in what she sings. Her character doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, but she is the real star of the show. The song is powerful, the choreography is perfect and while cheesy, it does send out an important message that has resonated with audience far and wide. I would lie if I said I didn’t cry during the song.
In my original review I said The Greatest Showman fails as a film, but succeeds as a musical. I stand by this. The musical numbers are perfect; songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exactly what you’d want them to be, choreographies by Ashley Wallen are energetic and dynamic and the cast sells it. It fails to be an engaging film, the story itself just isn’t that inspiring. But musicals are about utopia, being transported to somewhere better and existing in a world where you can burst into song and dance. And The Greatest Showman does exactly that during its musical scenes. It pulls you out of your seat and into the action, into the dance. And for 3 minutes, you dance with the freaks and oddities and belt your heart out and simply belong. I will go to my grave defending the musical numbers of this film and how they save The Greatest Showman from itself.