I’ve no idea whether real elephants were used in the filming of The Greatest Showman, though I suspect not: the actual ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ has now closed after 146 years, partly due to a declining appetite for live animals in shows of this nature. I also suspect PT Barnum (in the movie, played by Hugh Jackman) would be pleased with the use of CGI, given his predilection to use hoaxes and ‘freaks’ to make a living for himself.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition in the nineteenth-century narrative set to twenty-first century music – Zac Efron, seen here as Phillip Carlyle, Barnum’s business partner, could, if I hadn’t known any better, be reprising his Troy Bolton from the High School Musical franchise. There are high-energy, high-spirited, all singing, all dancing numbers that provide a distinct feelgood factor. Was it difficult not to applaud at the end of a song? No. This isn’t because of a deficiency in the performances, but simply because the movie itself took pains to showcase the reactions from the audience gathered at Barnum’s circus: the audience in the cinema is therefore watching from the outside in.
The Barnum circus has been somewhat sanitised in this Hollywood picture: there are no conjoined twins or blackface, and nothing even approximates to ‘Joice Heth’, marketed by the ever-imaginative Barnum as being 161 years of age (of course she wasn’t: ‘fake news’, anyone?), a disabled African-American. According to Michael Daly in his book Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P. T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, when she died (at somewhat less than 161), a public autopsy saw a crowd pay an entrance fee to watch her corpse being dissected. On the other hand, Barnum’s contributions to the anti-slavery movement aren’t given any consideration either.
Instead, the movie seeks to demonstrate, with some validity, that Barnum sought out people largely shunned by society because of their miscellaneous abnormalities, and gave them not only a livelihood but a sense of camaraderie and belonging. In the end, however, Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams) married an Icarus, so to speak – Barnum rose and rose and metaphorically flew too close to the sun until his theatre and museum burned to the ground.
Elsewhere, I doubt I would have risen to my feet had I saw Rebecca Ferguson’s Jenny Lind in concert, purely based on what I saw in the movie. But I get the point being made – she was a sensation at the time, and would have been celebrated by the great and the good in American society when showcased by Barnum. Still, she was an opera singer, and would not have sung a pop ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on mainstream radio stations, albeit one flanked by a symphony orchestra.
I would say more about some of the so-called ‘freaks’, if only there was more to say about them in the first place. The lack of character development is, in hindsight, rather disappointing. The production values are very high overall, however, and the cinematography commendable. It’s enjoyable, for sure, if conventional with a capital C, and its messages positive and wholesome – follow your heart, but don’t forget that home is where the heart is.
I couldn’t help thinking that we’ve been here before, so many, many times. Lyrics like “Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out / I am brave, I am bruised / I am who I’m meant to be, this is me” are newer versions of the likes of ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘I Am What I Am’. That said, the tunes are catchy and likeable enough for me to have ordered the soundtrack.
Clichéd but full of heart.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.