Nerds of Prey Reviews: The Greatest Showman
Musical theater, in any incarnation, has always had the difficult duty of walking a very fine tightrope. Leaning too liberally on the soundtrack can render a story bare. Conversely, failing to employ quality music can tank the effort entirely. The audience inherently trusts the production to know the balance and safely carry them on the journey to the other side. Does The Greatest Showman understand this delicate equilibrium between music and story? They don’t appear to. In fact, their choice to ditch most of the narrative focus in both plot and lyrics makes me think that they abandoned the tightrope altogether in favor of juggling. Poorly executed, hazardous juggling with rusty chainsaws.
The Greatest Showman suffers from wanting to tell one singular tale – how P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) crafted the concept that would become the Barnum & Bailey Circus – while getting distracted by numerous anecdotes without making enough room for any of them. The break-neck pacing is its own spectacle: “Oh look, Baby Barnum made a rich girl laugh once and now they’re adults and raising a family!” “Quick, over there! Now Barnum’s wildly successful after seemingly one day of struggling with the museum!” “Wait, did Phillip and Anne manage to quietly start and end their relationship within mere seconds?”
There’s more than enough flash and bang to spare, but not nearly enough of a concentrated effort to fully develop one single angle, from plot to participants. For instance, when rampant prejudice wedges itself between the cotton candy-haired trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and boozy playwright-turned-business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), the impact barely registers. Why? Because up to that point, we’re not given a chance to really invest in them long enough to care. At best, it’s a superficial attempt to signal racism without having to unpack any of the messy, serious harm. Because why simply center Anne in that moment when you can also spotlight the pain of the attractive, mildly infatuated white man, right?
That lack of character development, by the way, is easily the most frustrating aspect of the entire experience. Truly…it’s a feat to waste this tremendous amount of talent. Michelle Williams – a veritable master of quiet, core-rattling performances – is reduced to little more than the affable spouse as Charity Barnum. Zendaya, who is quickly fashioning a career out of being criminally underused in films, occasionally and graciously grounds Greatest Showman with intermittent reminders of the period’s anti-Blackness. The only thing I can really applaud is the choice to cast Keala Settle, who instantly elevates any musical endeavor with pipes that can floor the most stoic of musical detractors.
Even a bottomless well of charm like Hugh Jackman is tasked with delivering everything but the complexity his character’s existence demands. Yes, he can churn out a powerful note and glide across the screen with an enviable ease. Where, though, is any meaty, solid acknowledgment of Barnum’s highly skewed morality? The professional con man built a career out of stripping disabled individuals of their humanity and putting them on a stage for the world’s entertainment. Even in a highly fictionalized account of events, can we maybe stop the music for a second and seriously address that beyond surface level, especially while you have pros like Jackman, Zendaya, and Williams at your disposal?
The answer, apparently, is a resounding “absolutely not” as each pop-infused tune whisks us from moment to moment without doing any real work to move the story along. Let me be clear about something: the music is not bad independently of the film. It’s hard not to fall in love with the company’s explosively rich timbre in “The Greatest Show.” Who isn’t tearfully moved by certified powerhouse Settle as she melodically wails the bravery behind living authentically in “This Is Me?” Each song functions very well as its own pop fixture, providing the ideal accompaniment to a quick jog on the treadmill or a rousing, vodka-fuelled night of karaoke.
Within the context of the narrative, however, the music is mainly background fodder while various montages stand in the place of actual plot progression. With lyrics too broad or nonsensical to safely support any particular story point, the songs never prove themselves to be necessary. They’re just…there, which makes you contemplate whether or not this film really benefits from being a musical in the first place. Generally, I try not to make too many comparisons to Glee when discussing musical theater (does Ryan Murphy ever really need more of our attention?). Yet I’m unable to cite another time when I consistently cried “Is a song really needed here?!” while watching anything else, so…here we are. The music should move the tale forward, or at least provide some intimate insight. With the potential exception of the pitch-turned-business deal ditty “The Other Side,” I’m not sure that the catalog accomplishes that.
Despite many grievances, I wasn’t oblivious to the film’s ability to provide an absurdly vibrant escape, much like the circus it celebrates. Its objective, from what I can tell, isn’t to serve a slice of real life or genuine historical accuracy. Its goal is to test the boundaries of the audience’s imagination through untethered wonder and fun. If you’re searching for a glittering distraction from the world crumbling at our feet, Greatest Showman may work out splendidly. But if you’re looking for a film that shows signs of a beating heart, then you could potentially fall victim to the film’s greatest trick of all: convincing the world that it has something true to say when it clearly does not.
The Greatest Showman is in theaters now.