Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Michael Gracey

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Paul Sparks, Byron Jennings.

Hugh Jackman dances and sings up a storm in this musical biopic about American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), a pioneer and visionary entrepreneur and creator of the circus as we know it. Barnum’s first venture into show business was a wax museum he created in a warehouse in New York. Always trying to go bigger, he then created his human museum, featuring broken and unloved freakish characters such as a bearded lady, a dwarf, Siamese twins, and lots more. While the public lapped up the shows, a noted theatre critic was less than kind in his scathing review, and angry mobs also demanded that the show be closed.

The character of Barnum has been portrayed on screen many times before, most notably by Burt Lancaster, Burl Ives and Beau Bridges, and he was even the subject of a hit Broadway musical.

But this musical is tailor made to suit the talents of Jackman, who sings and dances up a storm as he brings this fascinating, larger than life character to life. A long-cherished passion project for Jackman, who has nurtured it for a decade, this is his first screen musical since Les Miserables, and he carries the film with plenty of charm and natural charisma. The Greatest Showman is ultimately a rags-to-riches tale as it charts Barnum’s rise from poverty to become a world-famous showman.

The film has been written by Jenny Bicks (What A Girl Wants, etc) and Oscar winner Bill Condon (Chicago, etc), but obviously takes enormous liberties with the facts in order to create this undeniably upbeat feel good musical. There are several subplots running throughout the narrative, and its themes of class and outsiders struggling for acceptance are handled with delicacy. However, the writers whitewash a lot of Barnum’s darker side and his casual cruelty.

The film features several original songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Oscar winning lyricists for La La Land. They give the music an anachronistic, contemporary feel, and there are a couple of rousing stand out tunes. The highlight is the anthemic This Is Me, led by Lettie the bearded lady, played with gusto by Broadway star Keala Settle (from a revival of South Pacific, etc). However, the fact that none of the songs is performed live is a bit of a let-down.

The Greatest Showman marks the feature directorial debut for Michael Gracey, who comes from an extensive background in commercials and music videos as well as working as an animator and visual effects supervisor. Apparently, James Mangold, who directed Jackman in Logan, was brought in to do some reshoots and add some scenes to boost the drama more. There is also some superb choreography from Ashley Wallen. Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Nocturnal Animals, etc) handles the wide screen cinematography. Ellen Mirojnick (Behind The Candelabra, etc) provides the flashy costumes.

Michelle Williams is good in an underdeveloped role as Barnum’s long-suffering wife Charity, his childhood sweetheart who supports his grandiose dreams. Zac Efron is also solid as Philip Carlyle, Barnum’s business partner from an upper-class family, who falls in love with the beautiful African-American trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya, recently seen in Spiderman: Homecoming.) This is a nice change for Efron who seems to have become stuck in tawdry sex comedies of late. Rebecca Ferguson (from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, etc) is also good as Jenny Lund, the Swedish opera singer whose tour of American Barnum sponsored in the hopes of gaining respectability (although here her singing voice is dubbed by Loren Allred).

The Greatest Showman is undoubtedly a lavish and handsomely mounted crowd-pleasing production along the lines of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. The film is lifted by Jackman’s star power and charisma, that captures the razzle dazzle of the circus. This is a musical that could easily be transferred to the stage.


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