The Greatest Showman has been the undoubted popular hit of 2018. It is one of those films that divides the critics and audience; it was given lukewarm reviews when it was released, averaging 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, the internet site that averages all review ratings. By word of mouth, it began to do very well with the public and hung on in cinemas for months as more people went to see it. It has an audience rating of 87%. Its music and sound have won it a Golden Globe for Best Song in a Film and an Oscar nomination for This is Me, and an award for Sound Editing from sound editors.
Orphaned, penniless but ambitious and with a mind crammed with imagination and fresh ideas, the American Phineas Taylor Barnum will always be remembered as the man with the gift to effortlessly blur the line between reality and fiction. Thirsty for innovation and hungry for success, the son of a tailor manages to open a wax museum but will soon shift focus to the unique and peculiar, introducing extraordinary, never-seen-before live acts on the circus stage. Some will call Barnum’s wide collection of oddities a freak show; however, when the obsessed showman gambles everything on the opera singer Jenny Lind to appeal to a high-brow audience, he will somehow lose sight of the most important aspect of his life: his family. Will Barnum risk it all to be accepted?
Before Hugh Jackman, who plays Barnum, was an X-Man, he was an award-winning stage-musical star, and his hearty, matinee-idol aura has never faded. Even when he was beating up supervillains as Wolverine, he looked as if he’d prefer to put his hands on his hips, rest one foot up on a tree stump, and belt out a chorus of Oklahoma. On screen, he’s had a couple of chances to show off his musical chops, as an animated penguin in Happy Feet and as not-so-animated Valjean in Les Miserables. But here is where he truly gets to unleash his inner trouper, and he barely stops singing, dancing and flicking around a top hat from beginning to end.
The film has upbeat songs by La La Land’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a script co-written by Bill Condon, who directed Dreamgirls. In many ways, though, it’s more traditional than the version which premiered almost four decades ago. It is determinedly chaste, wholesome, family-friendly entertainment with no sex or swearing, and it is careful not to startle its viewers. Its messages are all positive without being controversial: don’t judge people by their backgrounds; follow your dreams; don’t follow your dreams if they take you away from your loyal wife. The choreography and overtly theatrical sets might not match Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! for sheer brassy panache, but there’s great artistry and care evident in both.
The reasons the critics didn’t like it is because it papers over Barnum’s exploitation of the people who were on show and paints him as advocating for social justice through his shows, while leaving out the information that he was actually an anti-slavery campaigner.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall