This time last year, LA LA LAND took the world by storm. Despite its niche jazz undertones, it enjoyed wide critical and box office success, suggesting live-action original musicals (that aren’t aimed at children) may still have a market. 2017’s holiday musical offering, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, isn’t quite as bold or adventurous, but it’s still an admirable addition to the modern movie musical genre.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN presents a somewhat sugar coated version of the fascinating story of legendary American showman P.T Barnum. Starring Hugh Jackman as Barnum himself, it tells of the visionary’s rise from nothing, to pure sensationalised spectacle. Dancing around the darker aspects of Barnum’s history, the flick manages to high-kick and jazz-hands its way into the realm of light, fantastical family-friendly viewing.
First-time Aussie director Michael Gracey plays it a little safer than LA LA LAND’s Damien Chazelle (who was bold enough to feature a musical genre people love to hate). THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is decidedly more….shall we say “poppy”. While this reduces the artistic integrity of the film, it also bumps up the widespread appeal. You win some, you lose some.
Unlike Baz Lurhmann’s MOULIN ROUGE, which simply re-arranged existing music (‘Come What May’ excluded), THE GREATEST SHOWMAN features catchy original tunes by American songwriting duo “Pasek and Paul”. Fresh from their Academy Award success for Best Original Song for ‘City of Stars’ from LA LA LAND, Pasek and Paul are also no stranger to the stage, having composed for both on and off Broadway musicals.
As such, the glaringly pop style of their score for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN comes as a slight surprise; particularly considering Broadway-trained Hugh Jackman was cast prior to their appointment to the project. The songs do not play to his more classically inclined vocal style, but are pleasant to listen to none-the-less. While the film is asking to be turned in to a highly effective drinking game (take a shot every time you hear the word “stars” or “dreams”) the corny, inspirational songs are catchy enough to have you singing them for hours after leaving the cinema.
The cast, led by the sickeningly talented “Huge Jackman”, are strong. The vocal styles of the leads blend well (no doubt aided by the extremely heavy-handed audio post-production…not sure why they felt the need to reverb the hell out of Zac Efron and Jackman who have literally made a career from their singing voices! Go figure.) The supporting cast – studded with seasoned Broadway performers – are brilliant, and the kiddie cast members are so darn cute you could eat them.
Gracey comes from a visual effects background, and this is evident in his sumptuous cinematography. Every shot is painstakingly considered (and post-produced) to give an extravagant, fantastical sheen worthy of Barnum himself. It certainly is a feast for the eyes. His penchant for effects even extends to the choreography: Dance moves defy the laws of physics, with the fastest pirouettes ever seen! The frenzied editing also enables unique choreo that could never be achieved in real life. As a musicals purist, I found this unique, but jarring. A less traditional viewer will no doubt see it as creative and exciting.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN may not be entirely historically accurate, and it misses the opportunity to really explore a truly fascinating, and somewhat dark, character in order to appeal to the masses/avoid offending. However, it’s an undeniably entertaining and well crafted piece of on-screen theatre. It’s visually stunning and will have you hitting up iTunes for the soundtrack. It’s an impressive offering from a first time director, and a film Aussies can be proud of considering both the star, and the director, are homegrown.
I rate it 7.5 stars.