*SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for The Greatest Showman, predominantly that it’s a car crash*
19th Century circus pioneer PT Barnum is credited with coining the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”. The latest retelling of his story, The Greatest Showman, seems to have taken such a sentiment to heart. This is a word-of-mouth hit which condescends to its audience every second of its runtime. It’s creators expect the audience to buy into the feel-good tale of a grinning hero who spots a niche in the market for the afflicted and vulnerable and uses them to make himself filthy, stinking rich – whilst selling itself as a celebration of the very thing he exploits.
That is without saying anything of the shiver-inducing blandness of the film itself. In trailers and posters alike, The Greatest Showman was sold as a celebration of those who turn their back on the conventional and plain. There is nothing less representative of this in art than the very film which tells their story. Like flying a freak-flag in a light breeze, The Greatest Showman is the most studio-sanctioned, joylessly rendered portrayal of outsider culture you’re ever likely to see: with high-production values but not a single adventurous choice taken in cinematography or direction. Every face is pristinely lit, ever shot calculated to the nth degree. These are conservative fantasies of adventure; like a government minister dreaming at their desk of quirky misadventure and trampled fields of wheat.
The CV of first-time director Michael Gracey evidences why: no wonder a man whose career up until this point has consisted of making adverts for T-Mobile and Cilit Bang created a film so slick in composition but vapid in execution. You can imagine it’s creators spending six weeks working out how to pan from a swinging trapeze to the trunk of an elephant wearing a hat, but gave not a second thought as to how give it any energy or depth. The Greatest Showman is a 105-minute-long Pantene advert, with thicker layers of sheen and staler platitudes. Like a John Lewis Christmas, the performances are nothing short of puppeteered; every character so doped out on Disney Juice that starry eyes and slack jaws barely leave their faces. Jackman and Williams are talented actors, no doubt, but here even they suffocate under a cloud of breath-y dialogue and West End sheen. As for Zac Efron… well Zac Efron was perfectly cast, wasn’t he.
Worse still are the songs themselves. They were written for the film by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a songwriting duo who made their name most recently on La La Land, worked on the wonderful Dogfight and produced the score for 2015’s production of James and Giant Peach. This work represents a sharp downturn for the duo, who’s lyrical chops seem to vanish into a creative black hole. The songs themselves are fine: the choruses serve their function of sticking in your head long after the credits roll, but given every other aspect of their creation, this seems like more of a cruel punishment than anything. Sonically they mark the very worst excesses of commercial chart production today, the sort of studio strangulation which ensured Katy Perry’s latest LP was a flop, while the beat makers of hip-hop ride high.
Worse are the lyrics. Promoting that 21st Century breed of individualism which wants praise for simply “being yourself”, even if you’ve do absolutely nothing else of note (the philosophical equivalent of a new mother clapping when her newborn releases some gas), Pasek and Paul drive home the message with platitudes about “marching to the beat of my own drum” and “a million dreams keeping me awake”. Ugh. “Let’s rewrite the stars”?? This is the sort of material that would have been left on the cutting room floor of a mid-noughties Usher album and yet here they are in 2018, singing to the romantic experience of precisely nobody ever.
The final nail in the aural coffin is their delivery. While expectations aren’t exactly high for musical cinema, the hiring of Keala Seattle as a vocal hitman to murder these tunes is a horrible thing to inflict upon an audience. As Lettie Lutz, she flails and howls her way through songs like she’s being touched by the Holy Ghost. Hers isn’t a performance – that would involve some finesse – this is music for people whose idea of singing isn’t vocal control, just Leona Lewis singing ‘Hallelujah’ in the shower as the water turns cold.
But so what? The Greatest Showman is a vacuous film made by glamorous people who think that it’s audience is far more gullible than themselves, what’s new? What makes The Greatest Showman stand out is it’s moral irresponsibility. In the era of offence, it’s easy to be worn out of these kind of claims. The excellent recent Oscar nominee Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri apparently embodies all the racist cliches voiced by it’s characters. I don’t buy it. To some, last years La La Land was jazzy white-washing propaganda. On the other side of the aisle Star Wars: The Last Jedi was Disney pandering to the Social Justice Warriors by ensuring the representation of every demographic under the sun (in space!) But you won’t have heard any complaints by the knuckle-dragging alt-right about The Greatest Showman on The Joe Rogan Podcast. Why? Because its commitment to it’s purported statement of self expression in the face of affliction is as paper-thin as it’s lyrics. Worse, it celebrates the exact opposite: it is a commercial product cynically seizing the public mood in the same way Kendall Jenner grabbed her can of protest-Pepsi, while celebrating one of history’s least humane venture capitalists who made a quick profit from the very people The Greatest Showman insipidly claims to lift.
A little on the real PT Barnum then. He was certainly a complicated figure; once a slaver, he became enlightened upon the release of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and abandoned the Democrat Party for its support of slavery. But he was also one of the pioneers of black and white minstrel shows, where his acts would don blackface and spout racist slurs to the amusement of a paying crowd. Characters such as Jenny Lind and the midget nicknamed Tom Thumb make it into the film, but oddly the real-life character of Joice Heth didn’t make the cut. Heth was blind and almost completely paralysed, and despite slavery being illegal in the state of New York where Barnum established his circus, he managed to exploit a loophole which allowed him to lease her for $1000. Having worked her twelve hours a day for years, once she died he sold tickets to her autopsy for fifty cents a head.
Using the name of such a man in this retelling is bad enough, but given how radically the film rearranges the timeline of his life, the argument could be made that Jackman’s lead bears resemblance in name alone. But the character who appears in the film is little better. In his origin story, a cloaked figure with a facial disfigurement offers an adolescent Barnum a small gesture of kindness in his darkest hour. Rather than learning that a physical condition is not the measure of the person as the scene implies, this exchange somehow inspires the man to audition similarly afflicted outsiders and put them on stage for their open humiliation, from which he makes a quick buck before leaving them to it to swoon over the Royal Family. Worse, the film itself uses the image of the man’s facial deformity as a quick emotional wringer, before moving swiftly back to the Beautiful People. The mechanics work in a way similar to the punchline of a joke.
The film flirts with the true nature of Barnum’s business venture, but wrings far more horror out of the moment he almost kisses another woman than his life-long exploitation of some of society’s most vulnerable individuals, and gives him a jubilant redemption when he learns his lesson and finally splits some of his earnings… with the exquisitely handsome Zac Efron! The script’s portrayal of PT Barnum as a loveable dreamer – endowing him with glitz and musical numbers – is bewildering, and a betrayal of the individuals who are forced to the fringes of society everyday through no choice of their own, whose lives are used as nothing but a dramatic device here.
The Greatest Showman is a film which debases itself with contradictions throughout: art for those who defy social norms, shot like a Justin Timberlake music video and fronted by two of the most handsome men in Hollywood. It’s a defiant stand in the name of the vulnerable and dispossessed which is too tepid to cast any of them in the actual film, with one of their greatest abusers as the lead character. Who will 20th Century Fox choice for their next cash cow? A Mussolini musical: The Greatest Strongman…?
The Greatest Showman is a certified *Must Avoid*, and surely one of the most tasteless films released in recent memory.
Words By Liam Inscoe – Jones