THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – Film Review

I am posting this review five months to the day after the movie’s initial theatrical release. The DVD has been out in stores for almost a month. Most everyone else in the world is now discussing a current, record-breaking theatrical release (something about “to infinity and beyond,” or close to it).

Why am I drawing attention to The Greatest Showman when most everyone else has moved on? There are a couple reasons. First, I only just now saw the movie—at the behest of my wife (for previously disclosed reasons), without whom I would never have given this film the time of day, let alone my undivided attention. And second, timing is not one of my strong suits.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): 9.5 out of 10

In a recent Forbes interview, actor Hugh Jackman and songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek reveal that they had a specific demographic in mind. Says Jackman, “We knew the reality is we had to play for [a] family audience. And I mean down to 5-year-olds.” This reality affected how long each song was, as well as how each song was shot (to keep things fast-paced and visually interesting). It also affected the material they included in the movie—i.e., skipping the “cynical side of Barnum” and deciding that the “subplot with Jenny Lind was probably dramatically about as far as we could take it.”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a film for a narrow, more adult audience (depending on what one means by “adult”). There’s also nothing inherently wrong with making a film accessible to a wide audience. In determining to do so, the filmmakers of The Greatest Showman keep the objectionable content down to a bare minimum—the worst of which is probably some borderline risqué choreography in one song. There’s also a curious and superfluous use of the word “damn” in one particular song.

What many may find surprising about a movie focusing on show business is the emphasis on family. To borrow words from my friend E. Stephen Burnett, the movie goes “even to the point of showing that both popular entertainment (like the circus) and high-culture (like virtue-selling plays and their fawning critics) rank second” to family love and commitment—a thematic thrust that is “refreshing and even shocking.” And it is solidified in a poignant coda that simply, beautifully, and perfectly concludes the movie.

You might not get that sense from listening to the soundtrack alone. But once you hear who is singing certain songs, and in what context they are singing those songs, and what those songs are actually about, the pro-family message comes to the forefront.

ARTISTRY (A): 10 out of 10

The Greatest Showman mixes all the necessary ingredients for a successful musical: a charismatic protagonist (with an amazing singing voice), a stellar supporting cast, a charming narrative—and, of course, a plethora of memorable songs that help drive the story forward. Then it throws in a relevant & heartwarming message to boot.

The gorgeous cinematography, beginning with the very first shot, is visually arresting. The music, camerawork, and editing combine for maximum effect, ushering us into the emotions of those onscreen. Whether through the stirring montage in “A Million Dreams,” the humorous choreography in “The Other Side,” or the elegant symbolism of every dance move in “Rewrite the Stars,” the musical numbers communicate a wealth of information with astounding efficacy.

Some have blasted the film for its lack of historical accuracy. However, since the movie wears its numerous anachronisms on its sleeve, this criticism comes across as petty nitpicking. Besides (and I hate to be the one who has to point this out), this is a musical—as in, characters randomly break out into song and dance in all manner of situations, either to the nonchalance, or direct involvement, of those around them. “Accuracy” isn’t exactly the most…accurate description for a film of this genre. The Greatest Showman is a show-stopping razzle-dazzle that razzles and dazzles. And it does so in spades.

PREFERENCE (P): 10 out of 10

I grew up watching A Sound of Music, which was the first VHS our family ever purchased. So while I may not be a huge fan of musicals themselves, I can appreciate, and occasionally enjoy, the genre. This movie, however, won not just my appreciation, but also my admiration. My wife and I were only a few minutes into the story (halfway through the second song) when I told her, “It may be too early to say this, but I think this is my new favorite musical.” Indeed, it speedily trampled over every ounce of nostalgia I had for The Sound of Music to claim the new position of Cap’s Favorite Movie Musical of All Time, Henceforth and Forevermore. In fact, after finishing the movie, Shannon and I hit “Play” on the DVD menu, and watched most of the musical numbers again. Yes, it’s that good.

With such an outstanding catalog of songs, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but if you put my head in a lion’s mouth and forced me to choose, I’d go with two. The first is “A Million Dreams,” the second song in the film. It propels the story forward in montage form, communicating all the major themes of the movie through a whirlwind of activity. This song even brilliantly foreshadows the major plot points of the film, providing almost a veiled summary of the movie in six wonderful minutes. I can’t listen to this song or watch this sequence without crying. The second of my favorite songs is “Rewrite the Stars,” a duet for the other romantic couple in the film. As I mentioned earlier, their dance routine illustrates their fraught relationship, visually emphasizing the trials and emotions with which they are wrestling.

Of course, every single musical number in the film is memorable. It’s no wonder both the movie and its soundtrack are such a hit. To quote Rob Harvilla, staff writer at The Ringer, “Turns out that the masses still love a good circus, and a good capital-M Musical, and an underdog, and songs of soaring inspiration untainted by irony or pretension.” The soundtrack has been on repeat in our home virtually nonstop since Shannon and I saw the film several days ago.

I am tempted to call The Greatest Showman the greatest musical. Not being a connoisseur of movie musicals, that may be something of an ignorant statement. But in this case, my ignorance is bliss.

CAP score: 98%

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