THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. Admiration more important than content

It is evident that the creators of “The Greatest Showman” were more interested in the execution of the story than the story itself.

Dawid Myśliwiec

11 January 2024

It might seem that another rags-to-riches story, especially one presented in a musical format, would turn out to be tiresome, derivative, and unbearably Hollywood-esque. Such were my concerns about “The Greatest Showman” directed by Michael Gracey, announced as a spectacular biography of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a 19th-century American entrepreneur and pioneer of circus entertainment. Fortunately, I could dismiss all these worries after just a few minutes of watching, as “The Greatest Showman” proves to be a powerful injection of cinematic energy and, indeed, the greatest entertainment.

In contemporary mainstream cinema, we often encounter works that are excellent spectacles but lack distinctiveness in purely textual aspects – the story, character development, and dialogues. Numerous superhero blockbusters, earning billions of dollars and, according to figures like Jodie Foster, negatively impacting the quality of today’s cinema, serve as an example. Regardless of whether Foster’s opinion is justified or not, the existence of such productions is undeniable, and “The Greatest Showman” is no exception. While I find myself humming all the songs from Gracey’s film after finishing it, experiencing goosebumps at the memory of incredible choreography and phenomenal choral performances of these songs, I am also aware of how much P.T. Barnum’s story was trimmed in “The Greatest Showman.” The main character is portrayed as a great visionary, although just a few minutes of research suggest that Barnum was far from crystal clear, and his struggle for ultimate success – against banks, unfavorable critics, local populations – was ongoing. However, the film fails to explore these aspects, as even Barnum’s less commendable behaviors are brushed aside by the writers as mere specks of dust from his coat right after a performance. It is evident that the creators of “The Greatest Showman” were more interested in the execution of the story than the story itself, and while one may lament this fact, it’s hard not to be carried away by the spectacular form of this show.

From the very beginning, the opening number is performed exceptionally, promising a high-energy spectacle. It only gets richer and more intense from there – the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (known for “La La Land”) quickly become catchy and almost seamlessly interweave, leaving the audience no moment to catch their breath. In this sense, “The Greatest Showman” is a classic musical, with dance and song scenes complementing or supplementing the basic elements of the plot. While the creators opted for the spectacular execution, there are reservations about the costumes and set design, which, though creative, have little to do with historical credibility. This is another indication that P.T. Barnum’s story, embodied brilliantly by Hugh Jackman, especially in the vocal parts, did not fully engage the creators. Instead of delving into the development of individual characters or exploring the motives behind the protagonist’s decisions, Gracey uses ellipses one after another, significantly shortening the biographical dimension of the narrative. Although I expected “The Greatest Showman” to be a nearly three-hour epic, as is often the case with such grand stories, it lasts just under 110 minutes, a duration that seems too short – both to dedicate more time to the story itself and to realize more captivating dance-vocal sequences.

“The Greatest Showman” also boasts a well-chosen, highly talented cast – in addition to Jackman, who, after “Les Misérables” (2012) and “Pan” (2015), emerged   as a leading musical actor in Hollywood, the beautifully singing Michelle Williams, the Disney Channel duo Zac Efron and Zendaya Coleman, as well as the entire ensemble of “freaks” led by the Broadway actress Keala Settle in the role of the bearded lady. Without a doubt, each member of the cast excels in their skills: the flexible Zendaya performed her own trapeze acrobatics, Jackman reportedly read a dozen books about Barnum in preparation for “The Greatest Showman,” and the whole impressive spectacle was successfully overseen by Michael Gracey, a debut director who previously worked in animation, special effects, and commercials. It is also worth mentioning those not visible on screen, such as Loren Allred, possessing a powerful and wonderful voice, singing through the mouth of Rebecca Ferguson, or the young Ziv Zaifman, who provided his vocals for the teenage version of Barnum.

Can one criticize the creators of “The Greatest Showman” for being more driven by the desire to create a spectacle than a faithful biography? I would answer colloquially: you can, but why bother? It’s much better to immerse oneself in the world of Barnum’s imagination, free from factual contexts and prejudices, and simply do what the main character expected from his audience: have a good time. Especially considering that Barnum & Bailey Circus, the last form of the circus visionary’s legacy, closed its doors forever in May 2017.

Dawid Myśliwiec

Dawid Myśliwiec

Always in "watching", "about to watch" or "just watched" mode. Once I've put my daughter to bed, I sit down in front of the screen and disappear - sometimes losing myself in some American black crime story, and sometimes just absorbing the latest Netflix movie. For the past 12 years, I have been blogging with varying intensity at MyśliwiecOglą

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