Circuses are dead. “The Greatest Showman” was released seven months after Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey Circus, the titular “The Greatest Show on Earth” finally closed. So is the film an advertisement, or a eulogy? Neither – it’s an embodiment of the spirit of the circus itself.
Circuses being dead (for the most part, and in the traditional sense, at least – contemporary circus like Cirque de Soleil enjoy some success) lend the film a kind of purity, its hyperactive capitalistic style advertising something that can’t even be brought anymore gives it enough artistic detachment to actually make something of itself beyond just advertisement or tribute.
The film lives by P. T. Barnum’s showman vision – hoodwink the audience, trick the crowds, everything you show them can be fake but it doesn’t matter because their smiles (and their money) are real. There’s slivers of reality here in some of the characters and events (Barnum was indeed anti-slavery and ostensibly pro-equality in a sense) but the film certainly never actually delves into his actual views, let alone acts of his like buying then parading slave Joice Heth around the country claiming erroneously she delivered George Washington as a baby, then having a surgeon conduct a live autopsy of her corpse on Broadway. The historical revisionism in the film isn’t exactly like the standard reductive, whitewashing approach, collapsing real-like timescales into the most structured narrative beats style most biopics use.
The film is so revisionist and anti-reality it’s actively absurd; it reaches the point of hilarity. It’s not just Barnam himself being imagined as a champion of equality with no real valid grievances to be had against, where money was an afterthought and just a symptom of his desires to provide for his family. Jenny Lind, a philanthropist with legitimate gripes with Barnum and how he ran things, is reimagined as a scheming homewrecker. James Gordon Bennett is turned from a legitimate journalist with legitimate grievances against Barnum (it’s notable that his reporting on depravities like Barnum’s parading of Joice Heth is entirely excised from the film of course) is turned into, of course, a secret admirer of him, awed over his promotion of equality and “celebration of humanity” (this is regarding the man who paraded around African-Americans with birth defects as evidence for innate “racial inferiority”).
The film isn’t just playing with history to make a marketable, enjoyable film, it’s actively making a joke of history – a circus of history. That’s the beauty of it. Barnum unashamedly celebrates fraud, trickery, anything to get audiences in, enjoying themselves if he can manage it, at least coming at all if he can’t. The film celebrates all those ideals. It isn’t just a film portraying the origins of the circus, of freak shows, or the origins of Barnum, it’s a film actively embodying the spirit behind the circus and Barnum. It’s a holistic emulation of the circus, not just a narrative depiction of it. “Everything you sell is fake” remarks Bennett to Barnum in the film, to which he replies “these smiles don’t seem fake”. That’s the film’s thesis, and it’s baked into every level of the film, not just the script, but the music, the visuals, the casting, the performances, all of it. It’s an impressive work of cinema because it truly is cinema operating on every level to embody a particular idea, a specific mindset, a specific ideal.
Hugh Jackman legitimately plays the role of Barnum brilliantly, his natural charm so relentless and overpowering that it naturally invites a note of cynicism and suspicion with those he interacts with (in the film itself, and of course, the actual audience watching). He is unrestrained here and clearly having the time of his life, his infectious energy filling up the film. In many ways the performance feels like an extension of his character from “The Prestige”, a showman himself, but here the film around him drinks in that showman spirit and properly buys into it. The film would fall apart without as magnetic a figure as Jackman that could legitimately capture Barnum’s mindset that the film embodies through performance. The rest of the cast are lifted up by his magic, particularly Zac Efron and Zendaya. Michelle Williams struggles with the film’s expansive positivity and energy at times, but that actually plays well with the character who does the same with Barnum himself. Rebecca Ferguson as renowned singer Jenny Lind is the sole singer overdubbed in her musical scenes. How fitting it is that the singer the film sells as the most talented, truly life-changing, is the sole cast member overdubbed.
First-time feature director Michael Gracey handles the visuals well, a pleasant surprise being how he actually films the musical numbers like a film, not theatre. There are some striking symmetrically composed shots, but the most fascinating visual aspect might be how unreal the CGI backdrops seem when the film isn’t on one of its actual sets. It’s not unreal in an ugly, jutting way, it’s unreal in a glossy, stylised way, which of course fits what the film is doing. You can almost see the seams behind the digitised backdrops, just as you can almost see the seams behind Barnum and what the film is doing with him.
The music is through-and-through contemporary pop. Some of the press around the film sold this as using modern musical aesthetics to convey a “hero ahead of his time” as it were, but it’s better situated as a triumph of poptimism, conflating entertainments from across the centuries as falling under the same pandering, repetitive tics, the woah-ohs, endless forte and allegro songwriting, and glossy production (not to mention autotune, literally “tricking” the audience) embodying the same degree of creativity of Barnum’s circus. The film could hardly sell itself to audiences using music of its actual time, no matter what the opening titles briefly suggest with the old-timey logos.
The film invites audiences to become drunk on its own poison, to enjoy the dizzying pleasure of letting yourself be fooled, so in love with itself that it draws audiences to feel the same. It is not a rote biopic playing loose with a history, or a vapid feel-good musical with nothing behind it, it’s a bizarre rejection of reality on every cinematic level. Four elephants, and a ring of fire.