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The Greatest Showman: imperfect biography, infectious musical
My daughter, Alex, wanted to go and see The Greatest Showman. And she became quite insistent after a former colleague in the theater called her up to say that it was even better than La La Land. Really? I asked, raising an eyebrow. How could anything top La La Land? Her friend assured her that The Greatest Showman was superior. And yet, according to him, the movie house was practically empty.
A day later, we went out to catch the last full show. The movie house was less than half full. I was prepared to be impressed but I didn't expect to be blown away. The opening scene made me gasp. By the second song, "A Million Dreams", I was teary eyed. Yes, it was that moving albeit in a kitsch-y sort of way. And that's not a criticism. It's just sort of other dimensional.
It's been attempted before—combining period costumes, sets and story with contemporary music. Sofia Coppola did it with Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst in the title role) and no one understood what she was trying to do. I wouldn't call it effective but it was interesting. Now comes The Greatest Showman attempting the same thing, being better at it and proving that one doesn't need high-brow music and lyrics (a la Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera) to make a good period musical. Still, many critics aren't happy. And I'm just sad for them for being lost in their narrow-minded snobbery.
So, The Greatest Showman was good? Oh, yes, though not unconditionally good. Alex said that Hugh Jackman must have drunk a lot of blood to look that youthful, and sing and dance so effortlessly. The Greatest Showman is Hugh Jackman. Although I can never imagine another actor as Wolverine, I will always remember High Jackman as P. T. Barnum. It was surprising that I could look at Zac Efron and watch him perform without thinking High School Musical. Transcendence, finally. However, Michelle Williams couldn't sing. And why cast Rebecca Ferguson then use someone else's singing voice? I thought the movie industry had done away with such practice after My Fair Lady and West Side Story.
Then, there's the matter of both context and essence. If the The Greatest Showman were a fairy tale, I'd be using positive superlatives. But let's remember that, first and foremost, The Greatest Showman is the story of P. T. Barnum. Now, I have read the bio of P. T. Barnum and I wasn't impressed with the person. He was a money-hungry and cruel man who exploited people for a living. For all intents and purposes, The Greatest Showman is biographical. Yet, the film made P. T. Barnum out as a totally sympathetic character whose imperfections and occasional bad judgment calls were forgivable given that he was a just a poor boy who made it big. Obviously, the film missed—wittingly or unwittingly—half of the essence of his life.
In that sense, The Greatest Showman is a sanitized version of P. T. Barnum's life story which translates to it may not be the perfect biographical film but, as a musical, The Greatest Showman is simply masterful. It made me want to sing along, it made me feel like dancing and, in the trapeze scene ("Rewrite the Stars"), I wanted to fly. It is, in a word, infectious.
So, is The Greatest Showman really better than La La Land? It took me two days to answer that question. The Greatest Showman is an old school musical with lots of production numbers and bombastic visuals whereas La La Land is lean and understated. The Greatest Showman pounds you; La la Land tugs at your heart. If we're talking about pace, yes, The Greatest Showman is better because there is never a dull moment. If we talk substance, La La Land wins. And while I like The Greatest Showman's opening scene better, the final number was a bit underwhelming. Nothing—NOTHING—compares with the montage toward the end of La La Land. Nothing.
So, is it better? Well, I enjoyed it better. It's a fun and light-hearted film that I'd like to see over and over again the way I watch Mamma Mia! endlessly to perk me up. On the other hand, La La Land is heavy on the heart. I like to remember it as an afterglow but it's not something I'd watch obsessively and repeatedly. It's just too heart-wrenching. To pass judgment on which is better, which do we consider? If we're talking about sensual satisfaction, The Greatest Showman has it all. But if we're talking about something that goes under your skin, pierces your heart and stays there, then, it's still La La Land for me.