SCREEN: The Greatest Showman – Durban’s Suncoast CineCentre and other cinemas
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
I WENT into The Greatest Showman , a new musical loosely based on the life and times of legendary showman and circus entrepreneur P T Barnum, with very high expectations and – yippee! – was not disappointed at all.
An explosion of colour and good cheer, with terrific music, it offers good performances, super-slick editing, and knockout choreography and direction. I got so entwined in its magic that I cannot wait to see it again.
There have been some who have tut-tutted that the movie, reportedly seven years in the pipeline, has a too-thin and superficial storyline, and that it has much too light a touch on matters of exploitation by Barnum. Bah, humbug, to them, I say.
The film-makers have not gone for any deep indulgences, a la the Oscar-winning, pretentious La La Land. Instead they have made a joyous, feel-good musical which, for all its modern pop ferocity in song and contemporary exuberance in choreography, remains a loving valentine to the glossy, rags-to-riches, happy-ever-aftering musical souffles of yesteryear.
It may not be a historically accurate version of the Barnum story, but the kind of film the showman himself would have loved. As one US reviewer so succinctly put it, the film is “exactly the biopic Barnum would’ve made about himself – forget the art, don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, but leave ’em smiling in the aisles”.
It’s a Christmas cracker, a delicious confection that stands head and shoulders above last year’s La La Land, which, interestingly, also used award-winning lyricists Pasek and Paul.
They have contributed to the fine songs featured in The Greatest Showman and one of them, the touching and rousing This is Me, has deservedly earned a Golden Globe nomination, while the film has also received nods for best comedy/musical and the captivating performance of Hugh Jackman.
Jackman is on masterful form as the showman of the title, who we first see in a beguiling opening number, as a ringmaster. He strikes poses while singing from behind illuminated scaffolding-seating where circus audience members stomp their feet in time with the music. Great start!
We then flit back in time to see Barnum as a boy, the son of a poor tailor, who manages to defy the odds, make good, and win friends and influence people.
It is after he marries his childhood sweetheart from a posh family (Michelle Williams, with a very pleasant singing voice), then loses his dull job as a clerk, that Barnum comes up with the idea of a museum of wonders.
This idea then grows to embrace human elements that became known, in their day, as “freaks” – the likes of The Bearded Lady (a standout Keala Settle), The Irish Giant and Tom Thumb, among other “marvels”.
The movie is directed with zing and zeal by Michael Gracey, an Australian film and advertisement director and visual effects artist, whose cast includes Zaf Efron (in fine voice) as a young entrepreneur who eventually becomes Barnum’s partner and successor; and singer Zendaya, as a trapeze artist who falls for Efron’s character at a time when multiracial romance was highly taboo.
Another standout in the cast is Rebecca Ferguson as Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, who Barnum signed up for a tour in a bid to win favour with those of higher brow. Her solo song, the goosebump-giving Never Enough, is a standout moment in the film, albeit that it is hardly opera. (Some trivia here – Ferguson lip-syncs to the song. The voice we hear belongs to a former contestant on the US version of The Voice, Loren Allred).
The song and dance numbers are superb throughout. I particularly liked a Moulin Rouge-like rooftop number amid rows of flapping white sheets on washlines; an exhilarating aerial ballet between Efron and Zendaya; and a cleverly choreographed song and dance by Jackman and Efron in a pub. And the big showstopper, the rousing This Is Me, performed with gusto by the Bearded Lady and friends, all rebelling against being frowned upon by society for being different, is enough to have you cheering and wiping away a tear.
The film, made for an estimated $84million, features 11 contemporary songs created by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (better known as Pasek and Paul), in collaboration with John Debney and Joseph Trapanese.
Pasek and Paul, by the way, also wrote for the popular musical TV series, Smash, and their work on the original stage musical, Dear Evan Hansen, won them Broadway’s Tony Award for best original score this year. They are certainly on a roll as they have now also been roped in to write new songs for Disney’s live-action film remake (by director Guy Ritchie) of Aladdin, and for the planned live action adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The Greatest Showman is a wonderful treat to end the year. Hurry, hurry! Roll up! Roll up!