I don’t go to the movies as often as I’d like but the long summer holiday is a chance to indulge – if there is something that appeals. Unfortunately, I’m not the demographic most filmmakers try to please so it is often a fruitless search for a good movie at Southlands Village Cinemas, the easiest place for me to reach by public transport.
On Boxing Day, a traditional new movie release day, I went to see The Greatest Showman with my daughters. One of the stars, Michelle Williams, is a longtime favourite of my oldest daughter, Anne, and we have developed a ritual of going to see her film releases as a family.
Michelle plays Charity, the childhood sweetheart and later devoted wife of PT Barnum played by Hugh Jackman, the greatest showman referred to in the title.
The movie has had poor reviews from those who consider themselves professional film critics yet to date my friends and family who have seen it, absolutely love it.
It is not historically accurate (what film truly is?) but does not shy away from Barnum’s character flaws either. We see his selfish and cruel exploitation of everyone to pursue his idea of success. To be honest, I may not have gone to see the release of The Greatest Showman if Michelle Williams hadn’t been one of the stars because what I have read about the real Barnum is not complimentary.
Also, I’m not a great fan of musical movies and like most people, the bad ones (Russell Crowe’s dreadful part in Les Miserables) tend to be more memorable than the good ones.
As a lover of history, I prefer books and if on screen, choose documentaries or serialised dramas. Inevitably, there will be creative choices made condensing a life into what makes good entertainment rather than what may be accurate, especially if you only have an hour or so to do it.
But, taken at face value as a film, The Greatest Showman is entertaining – well worth suspending disbelief! It is freedom from the bombardment of doom and gloom from current media.
To sit in a darkened room enthralled by an imaginary world is great escapism. A bonus is a film for family viewing – no gratuitous violence or sex – and no hurt animals because they are CGI or animatronic.
I’m not surprised about the disparity in reactions and reviews – professional critics often look through an academic or superior lens, many demanding standards the movie-going public doesn’t particularly care about.
We bring our emotional and cultural baggage to any art form so healthy differences of opinion should occur but as much as I loved listening to Margaret and David, Australia’s ultimate film reviewers, their ‘star’ ratings never influenced whether I saw a film or not.
Since I was a teenager and reading Jim Schembri’s reviews in The Age Green Guide, I’ve been out of step with mainstream critics of any genre and prefer to make my own judgement. In fact, if some critics dislike a movie or a book, it almost guarantees I love it! (Surprisingly, I’m in step with Schembri on this one.)
It’s not often I leave a cinema uplifted and with the music and song lyrics in my head, but The Greatest Showman, a biopic on the life of PT Barnum of circus fame, written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by Michael Gracey, did just that for me.
Barnum, as mentioned is played by Hugh Jackman – a talented showman extraordinaire using the full range of his acting, singing and dancing skills. He plays a man you want to succeed despite his weaknesses and flaws. You fall in love with the people around him and if they’re prepared to forgive his foibles so can we.
He is ably supported by some stunning performances from a cast who deliver an engaging story and catchy, memorable songs. A couple of scenes in a bar are fabulous.
Anne went straight to JB HiFi and bought the soundtrack after leaving the cinema – the last time I remember any of us compelled to do that was when we saw The Lion King!
There will be debates about sugar-coating Barnum’s story, but the film portrays a man who came from a poor, powerless family and who rose to fame and fortune by gathering even more disadvantaged outcasts (people labelled freaks) and creating a show that ultimately led to being presented at the court of Queen Victoria.
In the film, visionary Barnum realised he needed someone to help him to appeal to more upmarket clientele and those with money to spend on lavish entertainment. He goes into partnership with a successful young playwright, Philip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron. This character is an imaginary persona not to be confused with James Anthony Bailey, the partner in the legendary Barnum & Bailey circus.
Efron’s character falls in love with Zendaya’s character, Anne, and allows the script to explore the endemic racism and class divisions of the period just as the cast of so-called “freaks” explores gender, diversity, acceptance of the ‘other’, prejudice, intolerance, mob violence, and the meaning of family and friendship.
All relevant themes in this deeply disturbing time but they are not new. Like all good art, the film attempts to explore the human condition but it is a feel-good musical. If you want historical accuracy please research and read – there is information on Barnum available.
The story has plenty of dialogue that is not singing (one of the failings of previously mentioned and aptly titled film adaptation Les Miserables) and strong performances from others in the cast, particularly Zac Efron and Zendaya’s relationship.
The pacing is excellent and the 105 minutes disappears too soon. My favourite is a cleverly choreographed dance scene on a rooftop reminiscent of Mary Poppins (another musical film I enjoyed). It concludes with a magical light show. Aptly, this scene shows the romantic love between Charity and Barnum and the love they share with their two daughters.
The attention to historical detail regarding costumes and setting captures the essence of another century but the razzle-dazzle, upbeat music and meaningful emotional numbers are the best modern Broadway can offer.
I particularly love the scenes with the whole cast and the bearded lady (Keala Settle) leading the performance – amazing vibrancy and energy with a magnificent voice.
It was a fantastic and fun way to end the year and in the words of Jackman’s character, Barnum, when accused by a snooty critic (Paul Sparks) determined to expose him as offering fake entertainment with a cast of stage personas like ‘General Tom Thumb’, Barnum pointed to the rapturous audience and said, “Do those smiles look fake?”
My smile and enjoyment not fake either – go see the movie because what the snooty critic eventually realises and writes is Barnum’s show is ‘a celebration of life.’
And that’s how The Greatest Showman felt to the cinema audience as they spontaneously clapped at the end.
As the credits are announced, we see the making of the film employed 15,000 people and gave thousands upon thousands of hours of work.
An industry and movie worth supporting despite the critics!