Nutshell: Bring forth the bread and circus! Jackman shines as the great P.T. Barnum, and Michael Gracey shows his first-time director skills by laying out a lavish, lush spectacle that needs to be seen on the largest screen possible for full magnificent effect. I probably should grade this lower due to it’s emphasis on sparkle and lack of substance…but I’ve been hoodwinked. And I’m fine with that. Grade: B
“It’s everything you ever want,
And it’s here right in front of you…”
Story: Young Phineas Barnum seems straight out of a Charles Dickens story; poor, orphaned, and longing for “the good life”. So when he gets an idea on how to achieve that life, he goes all-in, creating The Greatest Show On Earth. Y’know, after all the bumps in the road, of course.
Genre I’d put it in: Feel Good Jazz-Hands Musicals
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the real-life story of P.T. Barnum, and his circus.
Gotta say: Okay, I’ve been goofing a lot with this film. How? By thinking that Baz Luhrmann had his hands in it. He doesn’t. But damn if the bright, shiny spectacle of Showman doesn’t stand beside Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. There’s a similar shine to the festivities, a similar use of color to denote fantasy and hope, and even that same attention to detail in costuming and set design. But Showman is rowdier, more ebullient than Rouge. Perhaps because of the subject matter – how happy can Rouge‘s riff on La Traviata be? But more likely because the combination of a game first-time director (Gracey) and a tried-and-true screenwriter (Bill Condon) manage to find the joy and wonder of the circus, and infuse their musical with that magic.
Yes, Jackman, Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Williams and Zendaya shine. In such a sweet confection of a film, how could they not? (Seriously, Zendaya is a marvel, and her performance is brilliant.) But it’s the themes among the shine that ground this film. Class warfare, moral zealotry, issues of race, and “looking normal” are considered here. Front and center is Keala Settle as The Bearded Woman. While her character has no name she goes by (at least in the film), her strength of character and determination to find a place in the world for herself is powerful. Settle steals every scene she’s in, not because of the beard, but because of sheer charisma. Her killer pipes don’t hurt either; I got goosebumps when she tore into the breathtaking rally cry, “This Is Me”, which rightfully scored a Golden Globe nom for Best Original Song.
So what’s the problem? Well, those of you that are wanting more than just the slightest sheen of Barnum’s real life are in for a disappointment. There’s much more sparkle than substance here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that with Showman, the plot serves the musical numbers. The soundtrack here is phenomenal, but the screenplay only lightly touches on the spoken word. This is almost an operetta, with the amount of singing and dancing. Again, not a bad thing because JAZZ HANDS Y’ALL, but if I noticed it during the film? I’m gonna call it out as maybe not the most perfect thing.
As with P.T. Barnum himself, Showman pulls all the strings like the expert piece of entertainment it is. And even though I could feel those obvious tugs each and every time, I was transported nonetheless.
#Protip: Wanna know how Barnum became Barnum & Bailey? This article from Circuses and Sideshows shines a light.