Roll up! The Greatest Showman’s in town. P. T. Barnum brings you wonder, whimsy, humbug and flim-flam (his words, not mine). From the tallest to the smallest, all of life is here. Dancing to the drum of diversity, it’s a cinematic celebration of humanity. Beautifully shot, it’s also – thank goodness - a whole lot of fun.
P. T. Barnum, an orphaned tailor’s son, dreams of bigger things and of making a life with the girl-next-door. From a wealthy family, she’s out of his league. But dreams are for living and from childhood friendship to grown up romance, the showman makes it happen. All during the first song. Because, yes… this is a musical.
This is not a remake of the 80s stage show, but a barnstorming music-vid of a movie. Pumped up rhythms, from the first frame, pitch you in. A Stomp meets Strictly vibe has an anachronistic edge that actually works. And it helps get past the tricky bit: Barnum shamelessly showcasing a bunch of freaks for money. The sassy numbers are shot throughout with the pride of being different. Everyone, from Hugh Jackman’s Barnum to Zac Efron’s partner-in-hype, is being challenged about their reactions including the circus audience, and us in the cinema.
It could have been codswallop but it’s an exhilarating experience with tremendous cinematography and creative choreography. Efron, Jackman and the bendy Zendaya (convincing as an acrobat) – are great singers and dancers. However the visuals steal the show. Efron-Zendaya’s duet, on ropes and trapeze, is fluid and fun. Even Barnum and Carlyle, sinking shots together in a bar, are given choreography that’s funny, inventive and true to their characters.
This is what Les Miserables should have been. No static cameras here. The visuals are clear and fluid, swooping, sweeping, and gliding. More akin, appropriately, to Cirque du Soleil: World’s Away. Newbie Aussie director Michael Gracey brings a stylistic panache, true to his visual effects background. A circus of movement and colour.
True there’s no plot. Barnum dreams big, overreaches himself and needs to remember what matters. Family, of course. But we’re all family now. Tod Browning’s Freaks trod this path in 1932, so did David Lynch’s Elephant Man. So too Jackman’s X-Men movies. But The Greatest Showman can sing and dance about it and not fight so hard – because it knows it’s audience is on message, willing to stomp along.
Michelle Williams is expressive as Barnum’s wife. A good voice too but Rebecca Ferguson as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’ opera singer Jenny Lind gets her voice doubled. It says everything about the film’s accessibility that Lind’s song isn’t in fact opera but a ballad. That – and a misfire comedy moment with Queen Victoria – stick out.
And only one tune will have people whistling or stomping afterwards. 'This is Me' is definitely the film’s anthem and is likely to catch on as a celebration of diversity. Keale Settle’s bearded lady certainly belts it out in a star-turn performance.
Sharing the lyricists of La La Land, there’ll be no Oscar buzz. The words and music aren’t in that league. However British cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (who peerlessly shot Joe Wright’s Atonement and Anna Karenina) creates a visual spectacle that raises this confection to something well worth seeing at the cinema.