Director: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya
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“I’m not scared to be seen. I make no apologies. This is me.”
The Greatest Showman is almost definitely not a good film. You’ll almost certainly love it. That much became immediately clear when the Hugh Jackman musical hit cinemas in 2018, and its catchy songs, message of self-belief and infectiously enthusiastic cast whipped up the kind of word-of-mouth buzz that simply can’t be manufactured. Some reviewers were sniffy about the movie’s shortcomings, but the truth is that in the face of such sheer charisma, they’re irrelevant.
The film is that rare thing: not just an original story, but also an original musical. It follows the story of PT Barnhum, the man who essentially created the circus as we know it today. Today, of course, the idea of an emporium where people can see people with unusual physical conditions or animals trained in small cages is less appealing and more suspect, and it’s partly through that lens that The Greatest Showman stumbles: rather than acknowledge the exploitative nature of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, as Barnhum rounded up outcasts to perform on stage in costumes, the film celebrates the idea. It’s morally questionable to dress up a man with a shrewd eye for business as a hero of the people, a champion of those society wouldn’t value, but The Greatest Showman teaches one valuable lesson: if you’re going to get someone to sell it, make sure it’s Hugh Jackman.
Jackman is frankly irresistible in the lead role, from his beaming smile to his irrepressible confidence, and it’s not hard to see how he inspired loyalty and camaraderie in those around him – not just in 19th century New York, but in cinemas across the UK. After almost two decades of playing Wolverine, it’s a delight to see Jackman get a chance to do what he loves on-screen: belt out a show tune without a care in the world.
He’s joined by an equally eager cast, from a slick Zac Efron as Phillip Carlyle, PT’s eventual right-hand man, to Zendaya as Anne Wheeler, the trapeze artist with whom Carlyle has a swinging romance. Michelle Williams is lumbered with one of the few weak songs in the show as his wife, Charity, but brings heartfelt pathos to Barnhum’s domestic life, which is shunned for his success on the stage. (One early rooftop scene with his children [Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely] will have you in tears, and you’ll barely get a chance to dry your eyes from then on.) Rebecca Ferguson, meanwhile, brings fire and sizzle as Jenny Lind, a world-famous opera singer who catches Barnhum’s eye.
It’s her ballad, Never Enough (sung by Loren Allred), that proves one of the main ear-worms on offer, as she raises the roof with a cry of wanting more. Allred’s earnest vocals are only topped by those of Keala Settle, who is electrifying as Lettie, a bearded lady who delivers the rousing number This Is Me, a rallying call for defiance, independence and self-respect. They lead a pounding role call of catchy tunes – penned by La La Land duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – each one managing to blend old-school Hollywood pizazz with contemporary chart-friendly pop. It’s rather apt that the film should be released on VOD in the week after Eurovision, treading the line between camp kitsch and straight-faced conviction.
Director Michael Gracey, who worked for seven years to get the project off the ground, relishes the chance to bring his vision to the screen, and that passion sings from each frame – the choreography and camera work is never less than dynamic, from This Is Me’s proud parade to the raucous rock of the silhouetted opening number. One standout set piece sees Zack Efron and Hugh Jackman trade dance moves and shot glosses in a bar, and their impeccable timing and energetic precision will have you riveted.
The result is a brand new blockbuster with no sequels, no superheroes and no self-aware nods to the camera – a delightful piece of old-fashioned movie magic that feels refreshing in the modern age of cinematic tentpoles and franchises. Its historical accuracy is dubious, at best, as the movie rewrites its stars to tell its own story – but there’s something oddly engaging about its white-washing of an ill-reputed man, not to praise him as a champion of the downtrodden, but to give everyone around him a chance to shine in their own right. PT Barnhum may not have been driven by helping minorities to be accepted in the world, but The Greatest Showman, somehow, is. “It’s fire, it’s freedom, it’s flooding open,” sings Jackman in the introductory sequence. “It’s a preacher in the pulpit and you’ll find devotion.” By the time the credits roll, he’ll be preaching to the converted.
There are undoubtedly problems. While Jenny’s an opera singer, her signature piece is weirdly un-operative. While Barnhum’s experienced with animals, one exuberant chase through the streets climaxes in him just leaving an elephant in the street outside the theatre. And it’s missing one song that actually addresses Barnhum’s behaviour, which would do wonders to solve its uneven tone. Yes, The Greatest Showman is almost definitely not a good film. For its sheer uplifting, feel-good inspiration, though, it just might be a great one. Either way, prepare to have a new favourite album.
The Greatest Showman is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.
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Correction: The review originally omitted to mention that Loren Allred’s vocals were used for the song Never Enough. This has now been made clear.