THE GREATEST SHOWMAN: 4K Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 2017) Fox Home Video
Director Michael Gracey calls out the specter of a Baz Luhrmann musical in The Greatest Showman (2017) – a film that reports to be about the early life and times of P.T. Barnum. Ultimately, its more ‘show’ than ‘tell’ or even ‘history’ for that matter, and evolves into precisely the sort of gaudy, slightly bawdy, and rhythmically pulsating razzamatazz that could make even the likes of Florenz Ziegfeld blush. While the general consensus today has cleared Barnum’s reputation of the oft misquoted line, “There’s a sucker born every minute”, Gracey and his menagerie of oddities do their best – quite often, to succeed – at flimflamming the rest of us into believing in this colorful claptrap. The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon is slight. But that’s okay, because The Greatest Showman is more about retaining an air of resplendent period, imbued with an ebullient message of toe-tapping hope (the trademarked ‘feel good’ all musicals should have), and, contemporized by its bass-pounding Benj Pasek/Justin Paul score, that includes the Oscar-nominated, ‘This is Me’ – an anthem to the most unique of humanity’s forgotten, brought into the spotlight by Barnum’s vision quest for ‘the greatest show on earth’…not yet – actually.
Two prejudices to set aside before embarking on the excursion: first, this isn’t the story of Barnum’s life, but a gorgeously lit and sumptuously photographed pop opera a la Andrew Lloyd Webber, and second, its only vague resemblance to history is to be found in Nathan Crowley’s spectacular production design. Do we really need to know there was no great love affair between Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum (just one of the fanciful departures from truth in the movie), or that Charity, Barnum’s wife, was more careworn frump, raising three daughters (a fourth died tragically) largely on her own while P.T. was galivanting across the continent with his show of shows? Is it necessary to point out Barnum had about as much sex appeal as a nudie of Lyle Lovett or that Lind, mousy and plump, could nevertheless make grown men weep genuine tears solely on the power and emotion caught in her tender voice? Probably not. Artistic license in movies stands for something, as does suspension of disbelief. We used to go to the movies to escape reality, not to rediscover it, unattractive and festering, like a boil upon our collective psyche, never to be properly lanced. For the most part, movies today are the antithesis of escapism, rubbing our noses in the complexities and vile atrocities of humanity’s mad inhuman noise. Personally, I hate that, which is probably why I absolutely adored The Greatest Showman.
The picture also benefits immensely from the behind-the-scenes contributions of art director, Laura Ballinger, and, costumer Ellen Mirojnick, Seamus McGarvey’s beautifully composed cinematography and, last – though certainly not least, Ashley Wallen’s thoroughly inventive choreography, occasionally diluted by the verve in Gracey’s swirling camerawork, prone to artistically clever and frequent cutaways. Can we just get a director who understands a real dancer caught in his art can be photographed in full figure and still captivate the audience?!? But I digress. Personally, I don’t mind the parity between Luhrmann and Gracey, especially since The Greatest Showman’s Ashley Wallen also happened to be a dancer on Luhrmann’s best movie to date – Moulin Rouge (2001). The exuberance, athleticism and balletics featured in tandem in Wallen’s dance routines cannot be understated. The Aussie-born Wallen, whose resumé includes choreographic work for Kylie Minogue and Mariah Carey, a flash mob for Oprah, and, West End and Broadway productions of Ghost - the Musical, is precisely the sort of terpsichorean zeitgeist to helm such an elephantine ode to one of the most shameless self-promoters of all time. Imagine: a director of a contemporary Hollywood musical who actually thinks dance routines are important!
The Greatest Showman could have been better. That said, it’s still pretty good and fairly entertaining to boot; Gracey, convinced the old-fashioned-ness of the genre and his subject matter are best served by a lot of frenetic and bouncy tunes. One of the few artistic misfires The Greatest Showman makes is to ignore the basic structure of the traditional movie musical soundtrack. As such, there are no ‘slow songs’ in the picture – not even orchestral respites between the ballyhoo and hoopla of this three-ring circus within a circus. Even the one pseudo-love ballad, ‘A Million Dreams’ – a ‘traveling song’ - quickly takes off from its soulful introspection between the tender-hearted, Barnum (Ellis Rubin as a child/singing voice dubbed by Ziv Zaifman) and his prepubescent paramour, Charity (Skylar Dunn); the pair matured, in the blink of an eye, into Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams, thrust into a fanciful recreation of moonlit rooftops where even the pristine white sheets dangling from clothes lines are suddenly stirred in unison to compliment the choreography; Jackman tossing Williams about, saving her from aspired leaps over the edge, and finally, caught in a clinch, the camera pulling back to reveal Charity’s first pregnancy.
The concision with which Gracey jump-cuts from awkward and occasionally heart-breaking adolescence into the adult world of woe nevertheless retains its air of whimsy, and this is a good thing. I have read far too many critical reviews about The Greatest Showman, damning its stylized ‘sweetness and light’ as a ‘showy and confused big hunk of nothing’ when in reality it is Gracey’s optimistic outlook that achieves the sort of big and splashy reminiscence of an old MGM musical, teeming with gloss and gigantism a la a producer like Arthur Freed or Joe Pasternak in their heyday. Perhaps too many of these self-appointed mandarins of film critique, having fallen all over themselves in their idiotic praise of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) – a movie painfully unworthy of the hype it received – were as rife now to pull out their axes and perform a hatchet job on Gracey’s grace note and homage to P.T. But at the very least, Hugh Jackman can carry a note. Ryan Gosling cannot. And Jackman, one of the most diverse talents of his generation, has infinitely more screen presence and talent suited to the Hollywood musical to recommend him. Sporting the testosterone-pulsating manliness of a Gene Kelly and the finesse of the ever-elegant, Fred Astaire, Jackman lends this incarnation of Barnum both his own sex appeal and class. Having seen pictures of the actual P.T. Barnum, let’s just be kind herein and state for the record, the guy was no oil painting!
The other noteworthy from the cast is Zac Efron, whose big break in 2006’s High School Musical ought to have instantly reserved him a place in the pantheon as any director’s A-list ‘for hot musical talent. Alas, in the interim we have seen far too little of Efron’s innate gifts as a truly blessed singer/dancer; relegated instead to an endless potpourri of syrupy and prepubescent tripe (Rodney St. Cloud, 2010), the fleeting ‘serious role’ (The Paperboy, 2012) and occasional, out and out flop: Baywatch (2017) – anyone?!? Nevertheless, it is gratifying to see Efron having migrated beyond that rather goony and effete ‘teen pretty boy’ persona cultivated in High School Musical and its two nauseating sequels. Muscling up and turning 30 helps. But The Greatest Showman really doesn’t give Efron, cast as wealthy playwright, Phillip Carlyle (a character very loosely based on James Anthony Bailey), a whole lot of screen time or the chance to show his stuff as a singer, although he acquits himself rather spectacularly of a competition-styled bar room dance with Jackman (swapping shots and a few taps to ‘The Other Side’) and a spirited bungee cord pas deux with the luscious Zendaya (as trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler).
It is a little disheartening to see a star as gifted as Michelle Williams play third wheel to the Jackman/Efron bro-mantic chemistry that dominates most of this show, perhaps even blunting the impact P.T.’s affair with Euro-chanteuse, Jenny Lind and certainly diluting the racially complicated ardor between Carlyle and Wheeler. Of the oddities Barnum manages to bring together in record time, few are afforded enough screen time to distinguish themselves; Sam Humphrey’s midget, Charles Stratton – a.k.a. Gen. Tom Thumb, and Keala Settle’s bearded lady, Lettie Lutz about the brightest of the lot. Contemporary Hollywood’s underlying agenda to promote cultural diversity is again on full display. For once, however, it suits the story, even if the challenges of conquering social prejudices and racism are predictably met with reviled outcries from a rather hapless and homogenized mob of ‘white-faced’ ugly Americans, who cast penetrating glances and condescending catcalls from the alley ways and cheap seats. It is, in fact, one of The Greatest Showman’s painful revelation to discover P.T. among the grey fringe of these hypocrites, refusing his ‘freaks’ access to an elegant soiree where his latest find, Euro-singing sensation, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson/singing voice, Loren Allred) is holding court amidst some stuffy admirers. And this, after they have already met and thoroughly charmed Queen Victoria (played with ineffectual aplomb by Gayle Rankin).
The Greatest Showman inexplicably opens with a double-dip of the 2oth Century-Fox trademark: first, the 1950’s Cinemascope version to be immediately followed by its contemporary rendering, then, delayed opening credits interpolated with Jackman’s Barnum performing ‘The Greatest Show’ amidst a swirling menagerie of his oddities in accompaniment to the exuberant cheers of a captivated audience. Suddenly, the lights flicker, the applause dims and our ‘showman’ is swallowed up in darkness. We fade up on a prepubescent, Barnum peering through the window of a local tailor’s shop; his father, Philo (Will Swenson), nervously emerging with fabrics from which to make his latest clothes for uber-wealthy, Mr. Hallett (Frederic Lehne). Alas, the fitting does not go as planned when young Barnum makes Hallett’s daughter, Charity laugh, causing her to spill tea down the front of her dress. Attempting to discipline his child, Hallett turns his wrath upon P.T. after the boy confesses to the amusement, slapping Barnum hard across the face and warning for him to ‘stay away’ from his daughter.
A short while later, Charity finds her way to the beach where Barnum is convalescing. The two are obviously devoted to each other. We TripTik through Barnum’s unhappy childhood; suffering the devastating loss of his father, cast into the streets as one of the nameless urchins, attempting to steal a loaf of bread only to be restrained by the baker, but then, offered a solitary apple from a deformed peddler. Heeding the ‘go west’ call of the railway, Barnum grows into maturity while Charity is away at school. Upon earning enough money to offer her his hand in marriage, Charity’s acceptance is met by her father’s perversely bitter skepticism. ‘She’ll be back when the money runs out!’ Hallett promises Barnum. But Hallett has underestimated his daughter’s resolve; also, her genuine love for P.T. Although the two are poor in funds, they remain richly devoted to each other. Charity gives birth to two daughters, Helen (Cameron Seely) and Caroline (Austyn Johnson). Barnum, a devoted husband and father is frequently ashamed he is unable to provide luxuries for his family, promising one day to fulfill all of their dreams. Inspired to succeed, he forges a document from his former place of employment and uses the bond as collateral to open his first museum in the heart of the city. Alas, the stuffed exhibits do not bring in the crowds as planned; Barnum’s daughters providing the spark of ingenuity by suggesting to their father he needs ‘live acts’ to make his venture a success.
Concurring with their assessment, Barnum decides to establish a museum devoted to living human oddities and begins placing ads everywhere to encourage ‘unique persons’ to apply for a job with his fledgling organization. This leads him to the discovery of the forlorn Tom Thumb, hiding in his room, and the ashamed Lettie Lutz, resigned behind a curtain to conceal her bearded visage as a washer woman. Again, we flip through a picture book of Barnum’s human acquisitions; conjoined twins, Chang (Yusaku Komori) and Eng (Danial Son); strong man (Timothy Hughes), the Human Cannonball (Kenneth Chan) and Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.) among the lot. Barnum also hires acrobats, W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his sister, Anne, whose only oddity appears to be they are black and talented. While Barnum’s reputation for putting on a ‘freak show’ like none other quickly captures the interest of the masses, it earns the scorn of noted journalist, James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks); his publications simultaneously heightening the public’s curiosity in the show, but also inciting mob protests at the stage door of Barnum’s theater. Desperate to earn ‘legitimate’ recognition as a showman par excellence, Barnum approaches successful playwright, Philip Carlyle at a social gathering. A playboy born to privilege with a penchant for mischief, Carlyle resists Barnum’s invitation to join his act; that is, until he meets and becomes instantly smitten with Anne. She is unimpressed by his ‘interest’, perceiving it as fleeting and predicated on a curiosity for the exoticism of bedding a black woman. Carlyle finagles an invitation for Barnum with Queen Victoria; the English court agog when the showman arrives at Buckingham Palace with his entire troupe of performers who nevertheless earn the Queen’s hearty respect after Tom Thumb breaks precedence by speaking to Her Majesty frankly.
At a post-reception, Barnum is introduced to singer, Jenny Lind. And although he has never heard her perform, Barnum allows Lind’s reputation to precede her. With great aplomb he offers to introduce her to New York society; Lind, becoming intrigued by his chutzpah and confidence. Lind agrees to cross the Atlantic. Barnum rents the opera theater and debuts his latest discovery. Lind is a sensation and Barnum finally gains the respect of New York’s upper crust. Alas, he badly flubs this advantage when Charity’s estranged parents (her mother played by Kathryn Meisle) arrive at Lind’s post-debut gala. Mr. Hallett attempts a half-hearted reconciliation with his son-in-law, but is chastised by Barnum, whom he then refers to as still ‘only a tailor’s son’. Barely able to contain his disgust for them, Barnum orders the Halletts to withdraw. They do, and Charity is marginally ashamed for her husband. After all he has achieved, he still craves acceptance from those who, ostensibly, matter the least. Charity remind P.T. that the most important love he can ever attain he already possesses in spades: hers and their daughters.
Sadly, it isn’t enough and Barnum, now more determined than ever to become a household name, revered for the ages, chooses to accompany Lind on a world tour, leaving his family behind and his ‘freak show’ – newly rechristened as ‘the circus’ – to be managed and M.C.’ed by Carlyle. The crowds continue to come and see the show. Carlyle professes his love to Anne who reluctantly falls under its spell. The lovers attend the opera. But their arrival is admonished by Carlyle’s parents (Byron Jennings and Betsy Aidem) who cannot understand why their son would wish to associate with ‘the other’, not of his race or class. Mr. Carlyle threatens to cut off his son’s inheritance to which Philip forewarns he will never back down in his love for Anne. She, however, is untrusting of its fidelity and withdraws from the affair. At the same instance, the mob of protestors breaks into the theater after the show, attacking the oddities and setting fire to all that Barnum has built on the very night P.T. is returning home prematurely from the tour - but without Lind. Earlier, Lind had laid all her cards on the table, professing love to Barnum – unrequited and thus, almost instantly turning her heart to stone. Giving reporters something scandalous to print, a picture of the two kissing on stage, Lind steps aside, allowing the fallout to inflict its casualties on Barnum’s marriage.
Reading of the ‘affair’ in the local paper, Charity leaves Barnum, taking their daughters back to her parent’s home. Dismayed by the loss of his theater and ruination of his marriage, Barnum is encouraged by his roster of oddities to rebuild his show. At first, stumped how to re-finance a new super-structure to house the act, Barnum eventually lights on the inspired idea of substituting a tent for the conventional brick and mortar location. A traveling show pays no taxes. All it needs is a vacant lot to turn on the magic. Imbued with renewed optimism, Barnum arrives at the Hallett’s mansion to collect his wife and daughters. Begging Charity’s forgiveness and vowing to spend more time with his family, Charity accepts and Barnum debuts his new ‘big top’ extravaganza, passing along the ring master’s responsibilities to Carlyle in the final moments. Carlyle, who almost died in the fire, but recovered to earn Anne renewed respect and love, now proudly leads the glittering and gaudy processional of oddities, acts and animals through a celebratory pantheon of color and lights.
The Greatest Showman may have absolutely nothing – or very little – to do with history. In point of fact, those misguidedly seeking a biographical account of Barnum, the champion abolitionist with a political streak, much later to be fulfilled, should take their daily dose of truth elsewhere. The Greatest Showman isn’t interested in truth outside of a thumbnail sketch. Thus, it remains long on spectacle and the inherent goodness of one man who brought immense joy to the lives of so many through his visionary traveling circus. Pundits poo-pooing the picture’s sentimentality as abysmal treacle, appealing only to the lowest common denominator, have sorely forgotten that man (and woman) cannot survive on intellectual stimulation alone. Reality is very depressing, folks. The movies are – or rather, should be – and used to be, about extolling the immensity of the human spirit, about discovering the strength in human folly and sacrifice, and, recognizing it via an artistic parable to puncture the balloons of hypocrisy and sham, elevating our souls and making us glad to be a part of life’s ever-evolving cavalcade. Forget about labeling The Greatest Showman as a biopic. It is a pleasure to watch any movie – though, this one in particular – that can call upon just enough of our intelligence to make us realize the pursuit of art for art’s sake has merit too, and possibly, for the betterment of our collective wellness as we exit the theater humming the songs, remembering the moments, and filling our hearts – as well as our minds – with the gladness that comes when we have been royally entertained for just an hour or two. If there is a sucker born every minute, The Greatest Showman likely suggests it is those among us, too-too loftily corrupted by their own intellect to identify the strength in sentiment, because its’ beauty is something they will never grasp. Poor, poor devils.
Nothing poor or uninviting about The Greatest Showman in 4K – a miracle of Blu-ray mastering, in fact. Digitally photographed and finished in native 4K, this disc really shows off cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey’s…well…showy visuals to their best advantage, in a fully saturated, glossy/gaudy spectrum of colors, and, the interplay of almost chiaroscuro lighting contrasted in darker night scenes. Close-ups reveal so much about the actors, skin and dimpled imperfections, one wonders whether or not the precision of hi-def photography has perhaps gone a shay too far. I saw a pimple, albeit painted in heavy concealer, on Zac Efron’s chin. Everything about The Greatest Showman’s 4K transfer sparkles. Detail levels are uniformly excellent. CGI backgrounds stand in relief from the actual sets and occasionally look softer than the rest, I suspect, in an attempt to hide the seams where reality drops off and the clever matte work of a digital artist has kicked in. There is virtually nothing to complain about here, so we won’t. Moving on to the DTS 7.1 audio, it is as perfect as the picture, providing an immersive aural experience that will surely impress in its ample ambience, craftily spread throughout all channels, though ever so delicately nuanced in the sides and rears. It goes without saying, dialogue is crisp and clean while the score, sporting an impressive bass, thunders across the proscenium with all the energy of a raging tiger let loose from its cage.
Most of the extras are contained on the standard Blu-ray only (also included). We get a thorough audio commentary from Michael Gracey. At 1hr. 10min. The Songs is by far the most comprehensive examination of any film score I have ever witnessed for any home video release. We also get The Family Behind The Greatest Showman, 14 min. of interviews with cast and crew; a half-hour featurette on The Spectacle, extensive galleries containing copious art work and storyboards, a ‘Music Machine/Sing Along’ option. Finally, there are several theatrical trailers. Bottom line: While The Greatest Showman is grotesquely inaccurate to the truth of Barnum’s life, it remains a superb, if occasionally formulaic rags-to-riches love affair with the trappings of the circus. So, sit back and prepare to be dazzled – and yes, entertained: precepts and achievements P.T. himself would undoubtedly have approved. Yes – this is the greatest show!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)