Inspired by the true story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), The Greatest Showman follows the journey from a poor lad to a successful entrepreneur who founded the show business.
Here’s what I thought after watching The Greatest Showman during the press screening: it feels like an extended music video. Usually, that means a bad thing. But in the case of this P.T. Barnum musical biopic, it’s more of a compliment. Michael Gracey sure knows how to put everything together from structuring the story to staging the musical numbers. And boy, the musical numbers are the one that left me entertained the most. Mind you that Gracey is a first-time feature director in this movie. And yet, he proves himself like a seasoned pro who knows how to set up a good old-fashioned musical. If you love 60’s musical classics like West Side Story in which Gracey largely inspired by that era, you are likely to enjoy this one.
Let’s start with the musical numbers. From the moment the movie opens with Hugh Jackman’s Barnum in a silhouette singing “The Greatest Show”, Gracey successfully sets the tone of the movie and never let up. You gotta give a hand to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Academy Award-winning duo best known for their songwriting in La La Land. Every song that showcased in this movie is entirely original and likewise, they are amazing. Whether it was the Jackman and Zac Efron’s saloon face-off in “The Other Side” or Keala Settle’s Lettie Lutz sings her heart out during the soaring anthem in “This Is Me”, the songs are all remarkable enough. But if I would have to cherry-pick the best, I must say the infectiously catchy yet inspiring “Come Alive” as a true standout. It’s the kind of spectacular feel-good anthem that I hope the Academy would consider nominating this as Best Original Song. Coupled with highly-kinetic dance choreography alongside Seamus McGarvey’s wonderful cinematography as well as John Debney and Joseph Trapanese’s vibrant score, The Greatest Showman is no doubt a technical triumph that honours the musical of the yesteryears.
Another thing I like about Gracey’s direction is his economical pacing within its 105-minute running time. The rags-to-riches storyline is nothing new, but it remains efficiently told (we get to the flaws later) that the movie just cruises by just like a few snaps of fingers. Of course, this wouldn’t have worked if not for the effective editing by — six editors in total! — Tom Cross, Robert Duffy, Joe Hutshing, Michael McCusker, Jon Poll and Spencer Susser.
The ensemble cast certainly put their hearts out in their performances, particularly the way they sing albeit actual or dubbed voices. Hugh Jackman gives a wonderfully charismatic performance as P.T. Barnum. He’s a showstopper whenever he appears on the screen. It was a striking contrast from what he did in his gritty farewell performance as Logan/Wolverine in Logan earlier this year. 2017 is clearly a banner year for Jackman, with two back-to-back amazing performances. Zac Efron, who is no stranger to the musical genre, delivers a solid support as Barnum’s business partner, Phillip Carlyle. As for the female co-stars, Michelle Williams alongside Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya and Keala Settle each gives exceptional performances of their own. Ferguson, in particular, deserves a standing ovation for her heartfelt stage performance in “Never Enough”. Although the song itself is dubbed by Loren Allred, Ferguson’s expressive performance matches her voice well altogether.
Now, The Greatest Showman could have earned a distinction as a new musical classic if it’s not for its sacrifice in the narrative standpoint. As economical as the movie manages to be, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that Gracey alongside screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon could have fleshed out more about P.T. Barnum.
If you’re looking for a meaty storyline that engages you emotionally, say a better musical like La La Land, this is clearly not for you. It’s obvious that The Greatest Showman wants you to sit back and have a good time. Given the year-end holiday spirit and Christmas season altogether, a movie like The Greatest Showman couldn’t have been more timely.