If you want to understand the creation of modern American show business, then you absolutely have to see this holiday’s smash musical “The Greatest Showman.” The film details the life of P.T. Barnum (played wonderfully by Hugh Jackman), and how through the sheer force of personality, he brought forward his vision for the modern circus. “The Greatest Showman” is already starting to pick up major award consideration – including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for Jackman, and for good reason.
What P.T. Barnum understood better than anyone else of his generation is how modernity needs a huge spectacle to feel truly alive. Before Barnum, nobody had thought of creating a true-over-the-top circus spectacle to bring in audiences. And in “The Greatest Showman,” we see how Barnum assembles his circus acts – the acrobat, Tom Thumb, the bearded lady, Dog Boy and Tattoo Man – and makes them part of something wonderful.
In the film, this is all rendered in exuberant fashion, combining both CGI-powered acrobatics and plenty of rousing musical numbers that will have you leaving the theater dancing and feeling alive. In many ways, Barnum anticipated the modern entertainment spectacle of Hollywood – all the bright lights, the never-before-seen acts, and the focus on celebrity talent – and we see here how it all started. The songs are wonderful dance pop numbers, and all of the special effects showcase how Barnum transformed a mundane experience into one that was worthy of attention any time it rolled into town.
The real star of “The Greatest Showman,” of course, is Hugh Jackman in the role of P.T. Barnum. We’ve seen his charm and charisma on display when he’s hosted Hollywood award shows – as well as his ability to sing and dance on stage – and so this film is, in many ways, a perfect showcase for his abilities. Whether he’s urging on his new circus talents to perform at their highest level, or trying to make the hard sell to skeptical audiences, he’s simply wonderful.
Jackman perfectly captures the spirit of what can best be called “carnival capitalism.” At one point, he’s having a conversation with his future assistant (played by Zac Efron), when he drops the term “show business” on him. Efron looks confused for a moment, then replies, “Show business? Never heard of it.” To which Jackman answers, “That’s because I just invented it.”
Some critics have compared Jackman’s P.T. Barnum character to the role of the M.C. in “Cabaret.” Others have made the inevitable “Moulin Rouge” comparisons with this film. But here’s the thing – Jackman is playing more much more than just a “type” or a “role” – he is bringing to life one of the most thrilling characters from American history. We see the full back story of where he came from, how he fell in love for the first time, and what drove him to create the modern circus.
But that’s not all, because Jackman imbues the character of P.T. Barnum with so much emotional life. The key reason for that, of course, is the romantic tension introduced into the film. We see Jackman court, woo and eventually marry the love of his life, Charity Hallett (played by Michelle Williams). We see Jackman struggle against all odds to provide for his family in a way that they expect. And, perhaps most controversially, we see Jackman fall for another woman, the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson).
Thus, this move is a true biopic, offering a rare (if highly stylized) look behind the scenes at the life of P.T. Barnum, and how he transformed himself from a bankrupt striver in turn-of-the-century America into a true star in the entertainment world. He had a true flair for the dramatic, and never stopped trusting in his own ability and talent.
There is something about “The Greatest Showman” that makes it really stand out in the crowded field of 2017 holiday films – its relevance for today’s political world. The film is not afraid to take on the private lives of these circus performers and take a deeper look at their overall socio-economic context. Before P.T. Barnum invented the modern circus, someone like “Dog Boy” or “Bearded Lady” would have been ignored as society’s rejects. But Barnum gave them a home and an identity. At one point, one of the circus performers tells Barnum, “You gave us a real family.”
The message here, apparently, is that Barnum was not exploiting these “freaks” – instead, he was giving them a home and an identity. And for that he should be applauded. In fact, some critics have described the film as being “woke” for its incisive look at this aspect of society. Other critics have noted that Barnum may have inadvertently stumbled upon the first rumblings of “identity politics” in America.
The success of the film, though, does not depend on a political message. Instead, the message is much simpler: “Everybody is special… Nobody is like anybody else.” If there’s one thing that you should take away from the film, it is this. The message may seem a bit cornball, and it might smack of circus hucksterism, but as we see in “The Greatest Showman,” it couldn’t be more real and enchanting.
At the end of the day, “The Greatest Showman” is as much fun to watch on the big screen as The Greatest Show on Earth was to watch under the big tent. As P.T. Barnum asks one of his skeptics rhetorically during the film, “Do these smiles seem fake?” Thus, while some of the theatricality may have been manufactured (for example, we find out that the Irish Giant is really not Irish), the fun and spectacle is not.
Other films – such as “Cabaret” or “Moulin Rouge” – might have lingered more on the sordid tawdriness of it all, showing us the bottom layers of circus life, and all the petty infighting that must have occurred during this traveling show. But the film cleans it all up, delivering a perfect storybook experience with a wonderful, overarching message to embrace diversity and to always follow your dreams.
In short, “The Greatest Showman” really delivers a fun entertainment experience for the whole family. You’ll learn about the origins of America’s famed circus maestro, and you’ll also learn about the rise of American show business from its humble beginnings.