There is More Than What Meets the Eye in “The Greatest Showman”
A review of “The Greatest Showman”
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Fans said goodbye to the Barnum and Bailey Circus, otherwise known as “The Greatest Show On Earth,” in May of 2017. The production met its end after a drawn-out battle with animal rights activists and a drop in popularity after the removal of elephants from the performances. While its end was highly publicized, most were unaware of the circus’ initial path to success. Conveniently, this story has integrated itself into popular culture through the film, “The Greatest Showman,” which was released in December of 2017 and directed by Michael Gracey.
The movie-musical opens to a vibrant scene in a circus tent filled with a diverse group of entertainers performing stunts that include—but are definitely not limited to—stilt walking, horseback riding, and trapeze artistry. The crowd surrounding them shouts with excitement as the camera zeroes in on a man dressed in a bright red jacket and top hat standing in the center of the frenzy. The man is clearly supposed to be P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), who most of us know as the founder of the famed Barnum and Bailey Circus. The two hours that follow tell the story of the circus and Barnum’s rise to popularity and are, of course, jam-packed with uplifting and enthusiastic musical numbers.
It’s undeniable that “The Greatest Showman” is a visually stunning film. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s use of sweeping camera angles and intense close-ups pairs well with the elaborate, richly-colored costumes. A notable outfit was a luminescent white ball gown worn by European singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). The pure white of the dress fits well with the context of the film, as it is worn when Barnum realizes the recognition Lind could bring him and consequently pays less attention to his more eccentrically talented performers.
However, what takes away from the film’s appeal are the overlooked and problematic aspects of Barnum himself. The movie portrays the circus as a celebration of differences. Barnum takes on the role of a benevolent revolutionary who breaks social norms by offering a place for the outcasts. In reality, Barnum's path to success was most likely less selfless and bordered on exploitative. The film’s glorification of Barnum is demonstrated in its depiction of Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), a little person enlisted by Barnum to perform in the circus under the stage name General Tom Thumb. The movie portrays Stratton as a young adult who is insecure about his stature until Barnum teaches him to celebrate his uniqueness. In reality, Stratton was four years old at the time of his employment, but it was stated to the public that he was 11. For performances, Barnum had Stratton smoke cigars and drink wine, which drastically differs from the heroic general character Barnum embodies in the film.
While I had my doubts about the way Barnum was depicted on screen, I was pleased to see the portrayal of an interracial relationship between Barnum’s right-hand-man Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Though they are primarily known for their Disney-related successes, Zendaya and Efron do not disappoint in this feature film. Both actors step up to the plate and deliver emotionally impressive performances and highlight their striking voices in various songs. The pair sing an inspiring duet titled, “Rewrite the Stars,” and over the course of the movie, communicate the message that love goes beyond racial boundaries.
I was excited to finally see a movie featuring an interracial couple, though I noticed that “The Greatest Showman” could have made more of an effort in terms of race and representation. Barnum has a diverse cast of circus performers, but he and his business partner Carlyle are both portrayed by white actors which, in a way, pushes the performers into the background and makes Wheeler and Carlyle’s relationship seem more like a plot device. Wheeler’s brother, W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), appears infrequently in the film and has very few lines of dialogue. His lack of prominence does make me wonder if Wheeler’s romance with Carlyle is only incorporated to make the movie seem more aware. While its casting is progressive, it is slightly disheartening to see that every person of color in the film is a part of Barnum’s cast of “oddities.”
Though its racial inconsistencies are hard to overlook, “The Greatest Showman” does fulfill its ultimate purpose, which is to be a crowd pleaser. The backbone of the film is its score, filled with heartfelt lyrics and catchy melodies. Though the film is set in the 1800s, the soundtrack has a mostly pop feel, which gives the movie a refreshingly modern twist. Its composers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, have already gained recognition from their work on “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Tony-winning musical, and “La La Land,” the 2016 box-office hit. The well-written music is also complementary to the cast’s powerful voices, notably that of Keala Seattle, who plays bearded lady Lettie Lutz. Seattle, an actress primarily known for her roles on stage, has a powerful presence on film that makes itself known during “This Is Me,” a dynamic ballad about self-acceptance. Another impressive performance was given by Michelle Williams, who draws viewers in as Charity Hallett, Barnum’s free-spirited yet strong-willed wife. Williams’s acting is believable and mature and leaves viewers rooting for her character as she questions Barnum’s devotion to her.
Over the course of the film, Hugh Jackman proves himself a perfect fit for the lead role of P.T. Barnum, delivering a performance that leaves audiences both rooting for his character, while also questioning his judgement. With his impressive background in musical theater, notably the role of Jean Valjean in the film adaptation of “Les Misérables,” it is clear that Jackman is in his element in every scene in the film.
If there is one thing that audiences are sure to take away from “The Greatest Showman,” it would indisputably be the film’s message of embracing differences and celebrating them. The movie is well-meaning and family-friendly, but upon closer examination, there are several obvious discrepancies. Especially in light of Barnum and Bailey’s recent downfall, a nod to the circus’ controversial past could help acknowledge the flaws that were part of the production, as well as touch on their continued presence throughout history. The film is sure to entertain, but with its questionable representation and glossed over evidence, it is certainly more likeable when viewed through a rose-tinted lens.