The Greatest Showman: The Story, the Songs and the Mundane Protagonist

Feb 4, 2018 | CinemaScoop, Film & TV

This is the first post in my new cinema-inspired series and I can’t wait to get started! In these posts, I’m going to be discussing my opinions on today’s cinema. My goal this year is to see as much as many films as I can. In this series, I’ll be explaining my expectations of a film before I see it, before truthfully admitting my thoughts after I’ve seen it.

To find out more about this series, read my original post here.

The world has gone mad for Hugh Jackman's latest musical flick, The Greatest Showman - but here's a review from someone who wasn't quite such a huge fan.

Today, I’m going to be discussing my thoughts on the most popular musical since La La Land. It’s only February and I don’t think there can be a musical as big as this one for the rest of the year… it’s The Greatest Showman!

SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t yet seen The Greatest Showman and you’re still trying to avoid spoilers, maybe don’t continue. This is unapologetically going to be full of them, otherwise I can’t get my point across.

ANOTHER WARNING: If you loved this film more than life itself, be wary when reading my opinions. I’ll leave it at that. 🙂 Onwards!

Haven’t seen The Greatest Showman? Watch the trailer:

The Greatest Showman is a bold and original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and the sense of wonder we feel when dreams come to life. Inspired by the ambition and imagination of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman tells the story of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a mesmerizing spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.

🎬 UK Release Date: 26th December 2017
🎬 Director: Michael Gracey
🎬 Music: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
🎬 Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson

I remember seeing the trailer for The Greatest Showman before Christmas and I was intrigued. It looked like something that I thought I might enjoy as much as I usually enjoy musicals. Basically, my general consensus when it comes to most movie musicals is that I won’t be blown away, but I’ll enjoy it all the same (and I might be singing the songs for the next couple of weeks).

I wasn’t a fan of Hugh Jackman’s singing voice in Les Miserables, so I wasn’t sure to expect when it came to seeing The Greatest Showman. As for the rest of the cast, just from the trailer I didn’t see a lot of people I recognised, so there were no preconceptions there.

Weirdly, considering how much the film is insanely hyped now, I didn’t hear very much about it at all before Christmas! It’s so strange how it seems to have blown up.

Expected Rating: 4 stars

Hmmmm. Hmmmmmmm.

I’m very confused about this film.

On the one hand, I enjoyed The Greatest Showman purely as a piece of escapism. The cast was mostly filled with great performances; catchy songs which, I must admit, have been in my head multiple times; and a powerful message of acceptance (I guess? More below).

On the other hand… there were a lot of things I was unsure about. It’s definitely not down to the fact that musical movies aren’t my favourite, because I still know how to make an opinion of a film based on the film itself. (Contrary to belief – there seem to be so many defensive fans who, when someone slates anything about this film, jump on the “YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT FILM!!” bandwagon. In reality, people just have opinions that are different to yours. Shocker, I know!)

To be honest, I’m finding it difficult to summarise my thoughts without completely repeating everything in this video review by Jenny Nicholson. It’s a long video (around 32 minutes) but it’s worth a watch. Jenny points out some great things, and basically lists all of the things I’m thinking about this film too. I had a load of vague thoughts after I watched this film, but Jenny’s video helped me to form those vague thoughts into proper words.

Here’s the video if you want to watch it. If not, I’ll write my thoughts below. (Note: this post is around 3000 words, so it’s not a quick read.) I definitely recommend watching the video though if you want a more in-depth review.

1. The Songs

I’m going to start this off with a massively unpopular opinion: the songs in The Greatest Showman were very underwhelming. It might seem weird that I say this, because most of the hype surrounding this film has been because of the soundtrack. I know so many people who left the cinema and bought the soundtrack almost instantly.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see why: it’s full of power and charisma, it’s very upbeat and catchy, and some of the lyrics can be inspiring for a lot of people who feel like it’s a film about breaking free and loving yourself for who you are.

What I didn’t like about these songs – and this is something that Jenny explains very well in her video – is that they didn’t seem as if they were written as a companion to the film in any way. What I mean by that is that almost none of the songs have any lyrics that don’t make sense outside of the musical’s setting. When you listen to a lot of musical soundtracks, the lyrics don’t really make a lot of sense as a standalone song because they add to the context of the story – and I love that.

To me, songs in a musical should be there for a good reason: they should help convey the story, move it along, and not just add a bit of fun rhythm for no other reason than to help sell it in the charts.

The Greatest Showman, however… well, every song sounds like it did just that. It was as if the whole soundtrack was written solely for the purpose of commercial success. Like, the number of times I’ve heard Zac Efron and Zandaya’s ‘Rewrite the Stars’ on the radio or in a shop is crazy – and without knowing it’s from a musical, you’d think it was just yet another pop hit, churned from a record label to gather chart success. I just didn’t click with them; they didn’t gel with the story, and for me, most of them were instantly forgettable.

One song that especially got on my nerves was ‘A Million Dreams’, which went on for A MILLION YEARS. It was the song that walked us through flashback scenes throughout P.T. Barnum’s life, from his childhood, being a teenager, and right into adulthood. Every time I thought the song would end, it carried right on. Like, the film would change scene so many times and the same song CARRIED ON. I started to wonder if the entire film would just be ‘A Million Dreams’, sung in different styles by various characters. It got a little bit (okay, VERY) tedious, and the funny thing is, despite it going on for what felt like half the film, I can’t remember a single second of it.

Jenny Lind’s song also made me want to carve a whole through my chair because I hated it so much, but more about that later.

2. P.T. Barnum

Did The Greatest Showman need to be based on P.T. Barnum? Absolutely not. The film showed absolutely no resemblence to his life or his awful history at all. P. T. Barnum was quite possible the weirdest choice to be the focus of an upbeat pop musical. Not only did they take away all of his awful history of doing awful things, but they made him DULL. He’s just so boring!

In Jenny’s video, she explains – is he a genius? No, because he didn’t actually come up with any of his ideas himself. His daughter came up with the idea of having the “Freaks” (before then, all he had was a boring museum of weird things that didn’t do well at all), and some random critic gave him the idea to call it a circus. He came up with nothing himself.

Is he an interesting person? No, because he has NO flaws or NO likeable traits whatsoever. Name one of his flaws in the film. You can’t, right? Apart from the fact that he kind of fancied Jenny Lind and you thought he’d cheat on his wife but then he didn’t? I can’t think of a better word than mundane. He’s so boring and personality-less and ugh, I just couldn’t give a damn about him. At all.

I almost feel disappointed that Hugh Jackman took on the role of such a boring, mundane guy who is kind-of-loosely-but-not-really based on a horrible, weird guy from the past who liked to parade around people for his own financial gain, even if he later dropped them when something more shiny came along (again, more on that later).

3. The “Freaks”

The way the members of the Freak Show that P.T. Barnum rounded up was awful, which is funny considering the film’s whole message was supposed to be about loving oneself even if you’re different. Barnum made each one of the “Freaks” feel so special and amazing to begin with, and made them believe that everyone would love them. Did he stick by his word and treat them with the kindness and respect that they deserved? Ha, no!

In Tom Thumb/Charles’ case, he was scared of being laughed at… so the way Barnum encouraged him to join his show was that everyone would laugh at him and it would be great?? And Charles was like “yeah, they’ll love me!” Um… sorry, but where was the sudden change of heart? I just don’t get it.

But yeah, anyway, the treatment of the “Freaks” as Barnum so lovingly calls them (they have names, I guess, but they’re not important) is awful and it made me even more confused about Barnum. He seemed so slimy and charming at the beginning and then he was happy to forget them at the drop of a hat when signing Jenny Lind (I promise I’m getting to her eventually). I guess there’s one of his flaws: he promotes “being different” and “loving yourself” but then when he gets close to being rich and famous, shuts out the very people who made him rich and famous. It’s just very weird.

But you know what the weirdest thing was? The “Freaks” still don’t seem to SEE this. There’s an awkward moment in the film when the “Freaks” aren’t allowed into one of Barnum’s big parties, and in response to this, they go out dancing on the street to show that they can’t be held back. But not long after, they’re back dancing in Barnum’s show again?

The whole thing has blurred into one big, messed up plot so I can’t remember how that happened, but the main thing is, I don’t even care. They just went back to singing, yet again, for the bazillionth time, about how they’ve grown from nothing and now they love themselves (even though I thought they already came to that realisation in the previous song, and the one before that, and the one before that.)

4. Jenny Lind

Jenny Lind. Oh, Jenny Lind. The weirdest thing in the film for me was Jenny Lind’s portrayal and everything about her. Let’s begin by explaining a little bit about the real Jenny Lind because, just like they did with Barnum, the film butchered her portrayal and turned her into someone who may as well have been fictional.

In real life, Jenny Lind was an incredible Swedish opera singer, otherwise known as the “Swedish Nightingale”, and was one of the most highly-regarded performers of the 19th century. She blew everyone away with her angelic soprano voice that was like nothing anyone had ever heard. On top of her rare and magical talent, she was also a philanthropist who gave away most of her earnings to charity, including the $300,000+ she made from Barnum’s tour. (You can read more about her here.)

In the film, however, I saw her as nothing more than a relationship-ruiner, someone to get caught up in the middle of everything and cause drama, and someone who seemed selfish and spiteful. She, like Barnum, was left with no redeemable qualities, which I find insane considering she seems like she would have been such an incredible person in real life. I’m racking my brains and I can’t think of one good thing about film-Jenny. I didn’t feel anything towards her at all.

I don’t even want to mention her song that she sung when Barnum got her up onstage for the first time. I expected to be amazed by an operatic powerhouse, a performance that would shock everyone to the core. Unfortunately, the song that came out of her mouth was not a powerful, spine-tingling, goosebump-raising opera piece… oh no. It was a horrible, awkward song that sounded not too far off a pretty close Christina Aguilera cover. Why? Why?

The song had absolutely no purpose in the film – like, none AT ALL – but we had a whole 5 minutes of her singing on stage, crying at the “power” of the rubbish pop lyrics, and Barnum standing at the side of the stage with a stupid, doe-eyed, gormless look on his face. (This confused me. How long had it been between them meeting and her going up on stage at the show he arranged? And he’d never heard her sing? Weird.)

There’s so much more I can write about her, but if you can, please watch Jenny’s video above. She explains everything in such great detail and I couldn’t put it better myself.

5. Non-Characters and Pointless Subplots

Just when I thought this film wasn’t confusing enough, there’s also this point to add. There were SO many characters with SO many subplots that were definitely not needed. Like, there was the critic who kept coming back to add nothing to the plot except a witty response from Barnum. Every time the critic came back I was like, okay I get it, you don’t like the circus, you’re gonna slate it and Barnum’s gonna be like “hah u can’t hurt me, and oh that’s a good idea actually I’m totally gonna nick that, thanks.” That’s the only use the critic had in the whole film, but he kept bloody appearing after every show. Find something else to report on if you find it so dull.

There was then a whole subplot with Barnum’s daughter wanting to be a ballet dancer, and that also amounted to absolutely nothing. There’s a scene where Barnum and his wife go and see her in a ballet show, and afterwards, the girls she dances with are bullying her and call her “a clown girl who smells like peanuts” (I am so totally going to steal that phrase, by the way). Barnum looks sad, the daughter looks sad, they leave, and that’s the end of that. Except a bit where she’s like, “Dad, I don’t wanna be a ballet dancer any more,” and he’s like, “Oh kid you have to be, ignore them and be you” (when probably he’s just annoyed because he’s already bought her the stuff and spent precious money on something that isn’t his show) and the monotonous “love yourself” theme comes flying right back again. We get what the theme is by now. We don’t need a pointless subplot to prove it.

Those are just a couple of examples and they just seemed like pointless filler. Instead of these things that add no substance to the story, I would love to have seen more about the “Freaks”, considering they were a main part of the story, supposedly. Really, the bearded lady and Tom Thumb got like 5 minutes each, Zendaya had a bit I guess if you count her to-and-fro-wishy-washy love with Zac Efron, and the rest of them had nothing at all. They were the ones I was interested in, but instead we just got gormless Barnum and his rubbish ideas.

Reading back through this post, I’ve realised that it sounds like I absolutely hate this film. Let me just be clear here: I don’t absolutely hate this film. There are just a lot of things that annoyed me and when they add up, it turns into a lot of things. 😀

I honestly did enjoy watching it in the cinema and it was a good film for being completely immersed and engaged – up until certain points. I still stand by my word that the Jenny Lind segment with her standing on stage singing will be the most comfortable I’ve felt in a cinema for ages. And the song that lasted 10 years at the beginning was still the most boring thing I’ve had to sit through and I wished it would end. But apart from that, it wasn’t that bad.

It just wasn’t mind-blowingly great.

One thing I will say in its defence is that it’s good to see something that isn’t based on something; not a book, not a current stage show; it’s completely original. It’s just that it would have seemed slightly more original and less like a sugarcoated version of a weird point in history if it was about a random man who started a circus, instead of it being about a weird, fictional, heroic version of P.T. Barnum.

2.5 stars

If you have a spare half hour, please go back and watch Jenny Nicholson’s video review. I’ve kind of summarised a lot of her points here, but she explains so much in those 30 minutes that I just couldn’t have explained better. If you’re a huge fan of the film and you completely disagree with everything, then that’s fine, too!

What did you think of The Greatest Showman? Did you think it was a masterpiece, or are you cynical like me? I think this one would be a great one to discuss in the comments, so let me know your opinions!

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I’m Charlotte: media graduate, virtual assistant and avid reader. I’m a Hufflepuff, a space fanatic, and I love to write about books. More about me…

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