Let’s Talk About The Greatest Showman

This isn’t really a review of the Hugh Jackman musical. I don’t think I was the right audience and I only saw the film because I was helping out some other people.  Leaving the film I had no good things to say other than Hugh Jackman is a very talented man and I didn’t feel as violently inclined towards Zac Efron as I thought I might.

The problems with the film were just too clear and obvious to talk about. The actual P.T.Barnum was nothing like the character in the film. The shallow sort-of pro-diversity message was so sharply at odds with the history of the thing as to be unpleasant. Tied to that message was a rags-to-riches story that was pure propaganda for the American dream. The racial politics were shallow to the point of absurdity – even more so given the time-period (actually vague but historically prior to the US Civil War) and then even more so again given the historical Barnum’s complex relationship with slavery (used a paralysed slave as an exhibit and had her publicly autopsied as a spectacle when she died – later in life Barnum was anti-slavery).

So four things puzzled me leaving the film aside from a general WTF feeling:

  • Barnum-Jackman’s kids didn’t age at all during the film even though the story covered several years. Barnum goes from an unemployed clerk to struggling showman, to hugely wealthy, to taking his show to Britain, to starting on a new career as a tour promoter for an opera singer, to collapse of his business, to triumphant return and his two kids stay EXACTLY THE SAME AGE. That’s more than just a plot hole – it is so odd that I became convinced it was intentional.
  • I felt like the filmmakers expected me to get what they were doing – as if they were making a pastiche of something or a parody but I really wasn’t sure what.
  • I didn’t get why Jackman had to be specifically ‘Barnum’. Aside from very, very broad strokes, the historical character and Jackman’s character weren’t the same person. Now, movie biopics take liberties but in this case, the only relevant connections were that Jackman starts a circus and also runs a US tour by the opera singer Jenny Lind. Jackman’s character is a fiction – so why not just make him a fictional character? Even more so considering the existence of a different and successful Broadway musical about Barnum and hence the film not using Barnum’s name in the title.
  • Barnum as a character within popular culture (rather than an actual historical figure or the Jackman character) is an archetype of the entertaining fraudster. The archetype is somebody who uses fakery and false/exaggerated claims to beguile but also entertains people. This alluded to in the film (particularly by a snooty critic character) but the Jackman character does little more than stuff a pillow inside a large man’s shirt to make him look a bit bigger and claim that an Eastern European very tall man is actually Irish. In otherwords, they took the most defining aspect of Barnum’s character and even bowdlerised that.

I’ve been mulling over each of these and my first two answers are:

  • I still have no idea why the kids don’t get older. Possibly it is something really clever that I missed or they put it in the film to mess with my head.
  • I assume on reflection that they were trying to make a 1940s style big colourful musical. That would also explain the hagiographic nature of the biopic elements and the effort taken not to give any kind of overt offence.

The last two points are where I wonder if they were trying to do something clever. There is a very brief mention in the film of the infamous Feejee Mermaid. The mermaid was (probably) the head an upper torso of a young ape sewed onto the back half of a fish and then mummified. Put another away: a stitched together fake carefully designed to give one impression when actually it was something else altogether. Taking that as a starting point the absurdity and shallowness of the film begins to look a bit meta – in other words if you are going to make a film about a corrupt, cynical but entertaining fraudster who used bright colours and loud noises to distract people from the grubby reality then why not make a film that is bright colours and loud noises that completely erases the grubby historical reality underneath?

I don’t know. If you find sensory overload, bad plots and white-saviour complex films unpleasant then you will find this deeply unpleasant. If you end up having to watch it then you can spend the time wondering how Zendaya’s wig works when she is on the trapeze.


8 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About The Greatest Showman

  1. Touring England in 1997, I stood and looked at a curio case in Raby Castle. It was clear that some lord of the place had been into oddball nick-nack collecting. There was what looked like a big hairball (possibly from a cow’s stomach? no labels), some sort of relic, possibly part of the cubic fathom or so of wood comprising the known fragments of the True Cross, and I wish it had been less dark in that corner, because I thought I might have spotted a jenny haniver, a bit of nature fakery I learned about in a book my friend Mike gave me on animal forgeries (fake taxidermy and such).

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    1. Too bad we can’t edit these. I meant to comment idly that the collector of these things was probably well known to the fakers of such things—that they saw him coming, so to speak, and that such people are born only once every sixty seconds or so (thank you, National Lampoon).

      Raby Castle was pretty nifty all round, though. The gift shop had a poster that shows that Baden-Powell had been there in 1936 for a Scout Jamboree (the second time on the trip we crossed his path). They were filming a big movie about Elizabeth just across the river: lots of brightly colored battle tents. The kitchen, which had arrow slits in the walls, was a treasure trove of once-new innovative appliances and gizmos. They were early adopters (as witness the bathroom I used—roped off, but I cheated from necessity—that looked like the missing link between flush toilets and outhouses, with a tank on the ceiling and a polished plank seat) and they never threw anything away.

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  2. Clearly they spent all their money on Jackman’s salary and just didn’t have the budget to hire more child actors. They made it so obvious so that cynics like yourself would think it was intentional.

    Speaking of musicals, my wife keeps playing the Cell Block Tango from one of my favorite musicals, Chicago. Do you think she’s trying to tell me something?

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  3. Yes, they did ignore Barnum’s role as Prince of Humbug.
    I’m not fazed by unhistorical biopics at all, but if they were going to go with the diversity theme they should have followed through better. We see Barnum reject his freaks as he starts social climbing, but they never follow up on it. Instead the finale is all “You made us have confidence! You accepted us!” which handwaves that stuff away. So even by its own standards, the film falls short.
    And the songs were just “meh,” though certainly well performed.

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  4. Jackman was involved in producing the film and bankrolling it, so I don’t think he got a large salary for acting from it. The film did sound like a mess. (It takes place from late 1840’s through about 1852 sounds like.) The one bright side is that the one song “This Is Me” actually has resonated with a lot of people, lyrics wise, is doing well on world charts and nabbed the hard-working theater actress who played the Bearded Lady an Oscar nomination for the song and publicity/work opportunities. There are some positive messages in the film with the bad and Barnum did end up very much an anti-slavery crusader once he became a Christian and teetotaler, but yeah, mostly he was a conman and they should have just made it a fictional showman and it sounds like it was the usual stupid white man colonial crap. This particular movie actually did make money. Others like Downsizing flopped.

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  5. I would have been much more interested to see Hugh Jackman in a movie version of the musical BARNUM. Which is probably just as lacking in facts!

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