Let me tell you about 19th century entrepreneur and entertainment giant P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman). He grows up poor and mocked by the upper classes, despite falling in love with a wealthy heiress (Michelle Williams). As an adult, when the company where he works goes bust, Barnum steals a letter of credit, uses it to leverage an enormous loan, and gradually builds that wealth into a lucrative freak-show-turned circus with the help of a well-connected socialite (Zac Efron), an African-American trapeze artist (Zendaya), and a bearded lady with an amazing singing voice (Keala Settle). He does so with a lot of songs and musical numbers.
Let me also tell you about 19th century entrepreneur and entertainment giant P.T. Barnum. He manipulated a loophole in New York law, which enabled him to lease an elderly African-American woman named Joice Heth. He then toured her around the place as a sideshow spectacle, claiming she was over 160 years old. When Heth died, Barnum had her autopsy conducted in front of a live paying audience. A man named William Henry Johnson he made up with fake hair and displayed as an “African man-monkey”. His bearded lady he started exploited when she was one year old, as “the infant Esau”. The little person Charles Stratton he started parading as “General Tom Thumb” at the age of four. The real Barnum essentially used racism – and the specific belief that Africans were inferior to Caucasians – to spin his entire ‘greatest showman’ career. Prior to his taking of people as fodder for freak shows and exhibitions, he was also a slave owner. When Barnum went into politics, he openly to admitted to having repeatedly whipped those slaves. He expressed regret, but who can say if that was the truth or simply more lies from a con man who became rich based upon them?
The bottom line, and we have to address this from the outset, is that in making his passion project Hugh Jackman has actively bowdlerised a real-life notorious figure, one who bought, enslaved, mocked, and exploited people of colour and those with disability and facial difference, and transforms him into the charming protagonist of a Hollywood musical. It is a big hurdle to overcome if you know anything about the real-life inspiration. To be blunt, The Greatest Showman is worryingly close to a real-life Springtime for Hitler. It feels deeply misguided and historically dishonest. A lot of this could have been avoided had Jackman and his writing team fictionalised the story to the point of creating their own replacement for the actual Barnum. Where their final production sits is honestly as awkward as all hell.
Honestly there is a lot that works in The Greatest Showman. The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are truly sensational. They act like the nicest of ear worms, memorable and catchy enough to get stuck in the mind for days at a time. The choreography is rock-solid, and performed to perfection. Obviously there are stand-outs. Jackman and co-star Zac Efron are superb in their two-hander “The Other Side”, although that show is arguably stolen by a superbly expressive bartender. The climactic song “From Now On” is probably the best musical number of the whole film; the more famous “This is Me” was so aggressively over-played on television and radio before the film’s release that the in-film version wound up an oddly underwhelming disappointment.
The lead cast – Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Keala Settle – are excellent musical theatre performers, and those who don’t sing themselves (Rebecca Ferguson is over-dubbed in the emotional “Never Enough”) still manage to largely convince. The costuming and production design is great. The photography is less accomplished. Musical numbers in particular seem shot with a weirdly claustrophobic style, drawing in close for intimacy when the better instinct would be to pull out and showcase the dance routines and the sets. This is a first-time feature for Michael Gracey, and it may simply be that he was not quite prepared for the task at hand.
Then there is the casting of non-disabled or facially different actors in roles effectively defined by disability or facial difference. Settle does not have any condition that causes excess facial hair, and instead wears fairly unconvincing (okay, very unconvincing) prosthetic make-up. The same goes for the hirsute “dog boy”, the morbidly obese man, the albino twins, and so on. Really it’s only little person Sam Humphrey as Stratton where the film has cast an appropriate actor, and even then his legs are shortened with digital effects. Now more than ever it is critical for Hollywood to embrace appropriate levels of equity and allow marginalised people to represent themselves on screen. There is the typical defence of ‘we tried but couldn’t find anyone’, to which the obvious answer will always be ‘try harder’.
The screenplay, it must be said, is dreadful. The dialogue regularly stumbles, which is a surprise given one of the writers is the generally very good Bill Condon. Characters often have terrible, nonsensical motivations. Barnum does wind up exploiting his performers, for example, but they all return to him in a cheery musical number regardless. It is not because Barnum hits a redemptive moment but because the film requires them to re-embrace him for the climax. It also relies on the appalling cliche of a mean-spirited critic (Paul Sparks) as its biggest antagonist. Nothing reveals the wafer-thin skin of a screenwriter or director than a villainous critic – ask M. Night Shyamalan about Lady in the Water.
I feel obliged to explain to Jackman and Gracey while thy pesky critics can sometimes be so mean. There is nothing to be gained by dishonesty, or by sugar-coating the truth. Sometimes movies can have some really great songs and charismatic performances, but still be deeply and inescapably terrible.