For great Jersey music and much more, tune into our radio station at AsburyMusic.com
The Many Highs (And Lows) Of The Greatest Showman
By Candace Nicholson
originally published: 12/27/2017
In the past, I’ve written a few film reviews on my blog, the majority of them for small independent films or documentaries. But what they’ve all had in common is a connection to the arts. So it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch that I’ve decided to review a major feature film also connected to the world of arts in its own unique way: The Greatest Showman.
My desire to see The Greatest Showman stems largely from the fact that it’s the first original major American movie musical in 26 years. Yes, you read that correctly. And it was brought to the big screen by the aid of La La Land creators and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. With that said, Hollywood musicals — albeit no longer box office poison — haven’t been consistent in their revival of high-quality motion pictures featuring stage-worthy song and dance. But that inconsistency could be The Greatest Showman‘s gain.
And yet sadly, it isn’t.
Armed with a talented, but somewhat uneven cast, a solid soundtrack, an historically potent storyline, and a starburst of enthusiasm that would impress even Mary Poppins on her most singsong happy day, the film is a joy to watch, but lacks the cohesive spark that makes a movie musical a classic for years to come. With its energetic leading man — and let’s be fair, when is Hugh Jackman not energetic, the film’s pacing jolts in fits and starts only to settle later in saccharine moments that sometimes feel too inauthentic, even for the world of musicals.
As a history buff, I loved seeing the life of P.T. Barnum brought to life on the silver screen, as he was not only an innovator in the world of arts and entertainment, but in the world of business and marketing as well. Without his influence, I firmly believe the landscape of advertising, theater, and “spectacle” would look very different today. But conversely, as a history buff, the anachronism of the performers’ pop singing styles, mannerisms and social behavior often took me out of the story. For example, Loren Allred‘s voice substituting for Rebecca Ferguson’s was a beautiful theatrical choice and her song, “Never Enough,” wonderfully captures the emotional impact necessary to cause Barnum, as if struck by an epiphany, to fall into an infatuated tunnel-vision that jeopardizes his relationships with his family and his team. But the song’s arrangement and Allred’s style of singing is not reflective of the style of this period in history, and feels far too contemporary to ignore if you’ve ever watched a musical made before 1975.
The article continues after this ad
Where The Greatest Showman may falter in historical credibility, it more than makes up for in musical resonance. Not all numbers are made equal however. Songs like “A Millions Dreams” and “Tightrope,” much like “Never Enough” have the lyrical strength to give the film’s message the gravitas it so desperately wants, while numbers like “Come Alive” and “From Now On” need the added visual performance to really sell them on their musicality. I too wanted “The Other Side” to tap into my love of the O’Connor/Kelly duet “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ In The Rain, but energy alone isn’t enough to capture that flag. Although I’m sure Pasek and Paul would prefer to avoid comparison, it’s clear that the two male leads hashing out a business deal on tables and bar tops was intended to be an homage. The number is fun, but the song-and-dance men of yesteryear delivered on a less edited level as yet unmatched by the likes of screen stars today.
It’s no secret that Jackman loves to sing, but his voice simply doesn’t carry the same power and reverberation that most would expect for an actor with a theatrical background. In this regard, he fits in perfectly with his other featured co-stars Zac Efron and Zendaya. The would-be love interests of the film may have a large following among Generations Y and Z, but it’s clear their voices are better suited for the sound booth than the Broadway stage. Lovely to look at and believable as star-crossed lovers, Zac and Zendaya certainly have chemistry on camera, but their duet “Rewrite The Stars” is best appreciated by their devoted fanbase more so than by fans of musical theater.
The film’s standout song — and performance — is undeniably “This Is Me,” sung by Keala Settle and the chorus of Barnum’s museum and circus employees. With a voice clearly born for the stage, she steals each scene she’s in not because of her healthy beard and ample bosom, but because of her genuine command of each moment. When she sings, you immediately recognize why she was cast in the role, but when she fully performs, you are left stunned at how she’s managed to escape your radar for so long. “This Is Me” is not only the showstopper, it’s the pop favorite to find its way onto your playlists — with a little help from Ke$ha, of course (although I prefer Settle’s version.). I dare say, Ms. Settle is the reason I walked out of the movie theater glad The Greatest Showman was released at this time of year.
And timing does play a role in the film’s reception. After what most would call a tumultuous year on so many levels, The Greatest Showman is that feel-good movie with the uplifting message that we need in our lives right now. With its messages of inclusivity, self-love and chasing your dreams, the film reminds us to hold strong in the face of adversity. Yes, it does come across as uneven and, dare I say, cheesy, at times, but into our lives, a little cheese must fall if we ever hope to enjoy the silver lining to those dark clouds.
The director hangs a light on the film’s message (just in case you weren’t paying attention, it’s in the scene where Barnum is talking to the theater critic for the last time), and although the overall film lacks any sense of subtlety or nuance, there are other secondary messages throughout that aren’t as naked to the eye. For instance, when Barnum bluffed his way into a bank loan with ill-gotten collateral, he showed us that even historical game-changers had to fake it before they made it. And when Barnum initially opened his museum of oddities sans live performers, he was open-minded enough to listen to his family when they suggested he try something new if he wanted to attract a larger crowd. Therein lies a lesson where not every business idea starts as a gem, but with some fine-tuning and humility to accept feedback, that idea can grow into something far more phenomenal than you could’ve imagined.
The messaging is not subtle, but the character development is so subtle it’s almost nonexistent. Despite one of the film’s strengths being its lack of fear in showing Barnum as a flawed man, Jackman is so darn likable in the role that his faults come across as perhaps endearing foibles that demand patience and understanding, not contempt. When his songbird project Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson) takes him away from his home, family and primary showbiz venture much to the chagrin of his wife, kids and co-workers, the audience feels no real frustration with Barnum. Even when its clear that Ms. Lind has heart-eyes for Barnum, but he doesn’t share her feelings, his cluelessness feels more like an unfortunate miscommunication on the part of a man incapable of malice rather than a man so blinded by his ambition that his neglect for others’ feelings has made him deserving of his momentary downfall.
Again, The Greatest Showman is an enjoyable film. Flawed on multiple levels, but not enough to stop you from singing along to the earworm that will live on in your head for a week after you leave the theater. The actors’ performances are the result of everyone trying their best, but suffer from the exposure that not everyone’s best is equal — especially if you’re a Hollywood star. This original story is much appreciated in an era where remakes, reboots and sequels are the bread and butter of the industry. But the attempt to meld secular pop styles of the 21st century with the historical period of the film is not seamless and, at times, jarring.
As a musical theater fan and lover of movie musicals of all eras, I wanted The Greatest Showman to work. My personal bias hoped the movie would be the code breaker that led to more original musicals in the future. Unfortunately, this is not the code breaker we’ve been looking for. It’s possible to enjoy a film despite of its flaws, and in the case of this one, it’s your only option.
Candace Nicholson is a freelance writer, editor and blogger covering arts & culture, small business and community. When she’s not pitching magazines, editing creative genius or penning blog posts, she’s a regular contributor to LAFRA’s Widows, Orphans & Disabled Firemen’s Fund. Visit her blog at www.incandescere.com
2018 Westfield International Film Festival To Take Place September 20-23 (WESTFIELD, NJ) -- Anybody can go to a movie theater to watch a film, but the Westfield International Film Festival is bringing movies to the mansion with its sixth season at the James Ward Mansion in downtown Westfield from September 20 - 23, 2018! The festival will span a four day weekend and will include Q&A sessions with actors and filmmakers, networking opportunities, and red carpet parties.JCTC FILM Premiers DEKA-LOG, New Series Depicting Contemporary Urban Life (JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- A new anthology web-series by an up and coming, Jersey City-based filmmaker, premiers at Merseles Studios on August 23rd when Jersey City Theater Center presents DEKA-LOG: a Finding Me story. Doors are at 6:30pm, screening at 7:00pm. Admission is $10.The Newton Theatre Presents a Silent Film Halloween With A Live Orchestra (NEWTON, NJ) -- The Newton Theatre presents a trio of ghostly silent films paired with the original historic orchestral scores on Saturday, October 27 at 3:00pm. Travel back to the early 1900s to cheer and hiss with Buster Keaton in The Haunted House (1921), Laurel and Hardy in Habeus Corpus (1928), and Charlie Chaplin in One A.M. (1916). Between the films, enjoy the rollicking rhythms of the early 20th century as played by The Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra, featuring favorites by Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, and more! Fun for the whole family!A Look At New Jersey Film Festival's Fall 2018 Lineup (NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- The 36th Bi-annual New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2018 will take place at Rutgers University in New Brunswick from September 14 - October 26. The festival showcases new international films, American independent features, animation, experimental and short subjects, and cutting-edge documentaries through over 30 film screenings. The Festival will run on select Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. The festival is presented by Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, in association with the Rutgers University Program In Cinema Studies.Montclair Film and Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center To Hold Free Screening of "MILK" (MONTCLAIR, NJ) -- Montclair Film and Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center will present a free screening of MILK (2015) on Wednesday, August 29th at 10:30am at Montclair Film’s Cinema505. The screening, presented in celebration of World Breastfeeding Month, seeks to educate and promote breastfeeding among nursing and expecting mothers.
Newark Black Film Festival Richard Wesley is a playwright, screenwriter, and professor of Dramatic Writing at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and has been involved with the Newark Black Film Festival for well over three decades. A Newark native, he’s currently the Chairperson of the festival’s Selection Committee. The NBFF is currently in full swing, with a screening of Cadillac Records tomorrow, and the biennial Paul Robeson Awards for young filmmakers taking place on Wednesday, August 8. This season’s program also features the films Selma, I Called Him Morgan, The Art of the Journey, Coco, and Hidden Figures. We recently spoke with Wesley about the history and mission of the Newark Black Film Festival, the role it plays in the lives of young filmmakers, and a chance encounter with Sidney Poitier that launched him into the film industry.REVIEW: "Skyscraper" Over the last half century, the concept of blockbuster spectacle has flipped on its head. In the 1960s, big budget spectacle meant Steve McQueen jumping over a barbed wire fence on a motorcycle without the aid of a stunt double, or Julie Andrews screaming her lungs out on a Swiss mountainside. Science fiction was relegated to Saturday morning screenings of b-movies, which parents would use to relieve themselves of their tykes while they went shopping. George Lucas changed all that a decade later, and now sci-fi and fantasy dominates the multiplex, while the only movies featuring practical stunts are those low budget straight to VOD action movies designed to showcase the athleticism of former MMA fighters.REVIEW: "BlacKkKlansman" Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman isn’t a remake of Ted V. Mikels’ infamous 1966 grindhouse staple. Rather it’s based on true events (“Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” reads the title card, because Lee is apparently a 12-year-old boy), the story of how rookie cop Ron Stallworth (played here in a star-making turn from John David Washington, son of Denzel) became a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1978, despite being an African-American.REVIEW: "When I Sing" Most of the world learned of Linda Chorney in 2012 when her name was listed as one of the Grammy nominees for Best Americana Album. Her film, When I Sing, not only follows her rise from obscurity to the Grammy Awards, it goes much further. It’s a love story between a die hard Red Sox fan and a Yankees fan; a spotlight on how indie artists survive on the road; and a deeply, revealing portrait of how the media and the music industry turned what could have been a wonderful Cinderella story into a very hurtful experience.REVIEW: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" I recall hearing an anecdote concerning a society of pranksters in 1970s London who would take trips en masse to the cinema, only to walk out when or if the title of the movie in question was spoken by a character. That lot would get their money’s worth with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, as it’s not until the closing minutes that a returning original cast member (in a blink and you’ll miss it cameo) informs us that we’re now living in a “Jurassic World.” It’s the sort of cringeworthy moment that would normally cause me to groan, but I was so broken down by the laziness and ineptitude of this fifth installment in the franchise that I couldn’t even muster a sigh by that late point.