The Greatest Showman (or at Least, the Fairly Decent Showman)

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When I started seeing my feed fill up with posts about loving The Greatest Showman, I started counting down the days until I could finally go see it. It had the makings of a movie I would adore. Musical theatre is my thing. Hugh Jackman is a favorite. Zac Efron is grown up after his High School Musical days. Zendaya won my heart with her quirky performance in Spiderman: Homecoming. I saw Keala Settle command the Broadway stage in Waitress. I loved La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, the lyricists’ previous works. A musical film with all this talent about creativity and performance? Bring it on.

My husband Chris voiced his puzzlement that it had gotten such lukewarm critical reviews, and yet so many people we knew sung its praises. A friend of ours who openly scoffs at musicals saw it with his family three times. If that guy liked it, there had to be something there.

There was something there . . . multiple somethings. But, those somethings didn’t quite add up to leaving me wowed like most people I know. If you loved it, I am thrilled that you did. Hear me out—I didn’t dislike it. I had a ton of fun watching it. I felt happy. The movie itself ends with the P. T. Barnum quote, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” If that is indeed the noblest art, then no wonder so many love it. But if the noblest art goes anywhere past making others happy, then perhaps that’s why I’m left chewing on what I really think about it. 

It’s a gorgeous film to watch. It has the richness of color and pageantry from Moulin Rouge without the edgy qualities that made some uncomfortable. I found the choreography delightfully fascinating, especially in the bar scene for “The Other Side” and the dizzying trapeze love song “Rewrite the Stars.” The costumes are lush and satisfying. The sets support the velvety make-believe take on Barnum’s life. 

The singing is done well across the board—for me, Settle stole the show. (Let’s talk about the juxtaposition of a composed Jenny Lind standing still, singing, “All the shine of a thousand spotlights… will never be enough,” followed by bearded lady AND woman of color Lettie Lutz feverishly tearing through the crowd with “I’m not scared to be seen/ I make no apologies/ This is me.” Well done.)  The songs have a decidedly modern pop spin on the theatre genre, which makes for some epic orchestrations and arrangements. In that department, it is very accessible to the masses, which I am sure adds to its appeal.

It is always interesting to me when people instantly rank pieces of similar art. I saw several people comment that “It’s better than La La Land!” I am fine to leave the movies in their own boxes; while they’re both musicals with the same lyricists and involve show business, they have different feels, themes, and stories. If I am asked to compare them, The Greatest Showman left me moseying out of the theater, smiling and saying, “How fun!” La La Land, though, left me raw, mock-tap-dancing out of the theater with gusto, deeply affected and changed. That’s not to say I think the latter is necessarily better. But I wonder what it is about me, or the films themselves, that I was so moved by one and not the other.

When I look at the characters and pacing of The Greatest Showman, I start to see my lack of zeal. It hit every beat necessary for the story it wanted to tell. The boy with big dreams labors through some penniless times as an adult with a family to support. Barnum opens his museum and has no draw. He quickly innovates it and starts to move things forward. He has some pitfalls along the way and starts to lose himself, but comes to his senses in the end. It has great messages about what’s truly important in life. There is love and risk and drama. 

I appreciate when a movie isn’t longer than it needs to be—and given the family-friendly nature of this film, I bet most of its audiences did, too. In this case, though, my lack of convincing came from how fast we were taken through the plot points. Every time we see a conflict, the characters quickly find solutions and sing about their newfound determination within a few minutes. The “oddity” circus performers get barred from the high-society party? Not for long—they’re proud of who they are and will sing about it fiercely on and off the stage. Barnum was the one who tried to shut them out? Oh well, the show must go on. The songbird diva finally calls out the flirtation they’ve been fanning? He says no without much hesitation, and she’s instantly gone. Barnum faces a scandal after his big tour idea and his wife leaves? No problem; he’s realized the error of his ways, and he returns with profound apologies. Once he does, his wife is ready and willing to take him back and resume their life together without missing a beat. Each character’s struggle is resolved so quickly that I never had a chance to really sit in their grief or uncertainty. So, the songs are triumphant, but when we are taken on a ride of almost unending triumph, it loses some of the punch it could have. 

The most gripping arc for me was the romance of Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler—and, go figure, it’s the one that didn’t have an immediate payoff. Their incredible love song ends with her deciding that their obstacles are too great, and she walks off screen. Their love doesn’t conquer all until later, and it’s more satisfying for it. 

The songs have some similarly inspiring, hope-driven lyrics and soaring melodies to what Paul and Pasek penned in Dear Evan Hansen. In that story, though, there is enough darkness and tension to position those songs to give needed relief. In this story, the stress levels don’t hang around long enough to need a light of encouragement. 

It’s in this that the critical, public, and personal reactions start to make sense to me. The critics are analyzing plot and dynamics. They want to see well-executed action and good cinema—which, to them, goes past just making people happy. The public, though, is coming off of a hard year or two. They see characters face adversity and quickly overcome it in gratifying musical numbers that only take a few minutes to materialize. They get a spectacle AND a win, multiple times over. The anthemic songs are easy to adopt and belt out as personal mantras. The victories don’t come easily, but they do come quickly, and it can feel comforting.

We all view art through our own lenses, and my lens isn’t quite ready for that swift relief. I’ve been slogging through the muck of life transition for the past six months, and it hasn’t been quick to alleviate. It’s taken a ton of energy and stamina that I don’t quite have. I feel tired and weary. Maybe this should make me want a quick win from a movie, a vicarious battle that only takes so much fight before it succeeds. However, while The Greatest Showman was highly entertaining, it just didn’t feel real to me. (Okay, of course it’s not real—people are singing about their feelings, for heaven’s sake. That’s normally my thing, though.) 

I can enjoy the story of characters who quickly regain their footing and crow about their life “from now on.” But I truly identify with and love the stories of characters who have done their time in the trenches, who live in the tension longer than they want to before the payoff comes. This is what feels authentic. The groaning of creation. The people in the desert. The silence of God for hundreds of years. The barrenness for almost a century. A hope deferred. That’s where musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land (which was less universally appealing) hit me. I’m given time to feel the despair and anxiety and doubt of their characters, left to sit in it before resolution delivers them. It feels like they’ve earned it, they deserve it. I have time to reflect on my own journey’s similarities. I feel a little less alone. 

It is by no means lesser to indulge in a speedier denouement. We all need breaks from our waiting seasons. We are drawn to fiction for varying reasons, and happiness is a good one. I am not in the camp of the stuffy critic (who is an actual character in the movie). I have already listened to the soundtrack a few times since seeing the movie and probably will again. The Greatest Showman provides an uplifting experience to its viewers, and there is a place for that. But it will probably go on my “sick day easy viewing” list, not my “I need some serious hope and beauty” list. It’s a bit like the distinction between happiness and joy for believers—a temporary emotion versus a lasting, transformative sensation. I am all for art causing happiness; when happiness follows sufficient and significant conflict, though, it can cross the line from easy pleasure into true satisfaction. 

Jenna Badeker is a musician and writer currently living in Maryland. She is half of the duo Wild Harbors with her husband, Chris. She also has a sweet dwarf rabbit named Duncan who lives in her living room... which makes it a literal Rabbit Room.


12 Comments

  1. VB

    Thank you! This is a really interesting review for me.

    I’ve read Barnum’s autobiography too recently to want to see the film itself, although I’m fascinated by the promotional material. Barnum was certainly clever and a marketer far ahead of his time… but definitely in it for himself. While he did make various decisions that were contrary to how “the industry” worked at that time, they were extremely canny market-increasing profit-driven ones (titillate the public as much as you can get away with while still theoretically promoting the idea that this isn’t titillation but education and morally positive; pay your attractions just well enough to keep them on with you [and publicize the fact and rejoice smugly when they don’t have as much financial success after going “independent”]). While autobiography isn’t fact, the things he’s proud of in the autobiography are… well, a bit telling, I’d say.

    That said, I’m still a sucker for a good musical number, and while “be yourself” is definitely not the highest moral lesson (especially when decoupled from any idea of sin to battle, or personal growth, or responsibility to others), it’s probably better than some of the catchy ones out there as long as those limitations are recognized.

    I agree that resolutions are more satisfying when the problems are convincing (and hence not over-brief). With the caveat of having not watched the movie, I also suspect (from reviews) that the overall Positive Message is, perhaps, an extremely tasty fib: it’ll all work out, celebrate all your differences even if you get some pushback, people will soon end up loving you and you’ll be successful and you’ll find your people. And extremely tasty fibs are also artistically unsatisfying, when recognized, which may play into the divergent responses – if what it’s selling is what you want to believe, and you can buy it just enough, you’ll love the film; if part of you keeps stepping back and saying “this is not how life and humanity actually work out – it’s a lot messier” – then you probably won’t. Except for the costumes and the fabulous musical numbers, that is. 🙂

  2. Laure Hittle

    @mrs-hittle

    i had sort of the same experience. i kept seeing people talk about the movie and posting songs, and i didn’t want to engage that until i’d seen it. (i don’t know if i would have seen it, but my twelve-year-old self loved it and wanted to take me.) And it was fine. The music was fine. The choreography was fine. The story was fine. The simplistic resolutions were bothersome to me as well—key among them Charity’s inexplicable dropping of his betrayals and the implication that love and defiance are all you need to overcome anti-miscegenation laws.

    i also [spoiler alert] felt ambivalent about P.T. marginalizing his own acts and then, in the middle of the song that signified he had returned to honoring them, handing off the show’s reins to raise his kids. It’s hardly a bad thing to raise your kids, especially after neglecting your family for months. But that was not repentance. There had to be a way for him to act in humility and faithfulness to all the people he’d wronged, or at least not to pass off a second abandonment as a moral victory.

  3. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Ha… there’s a part of me that wants to see it (because the songs I’ve heard, at least separated from their film context, sound epic) but with low expectations. But I’m really intrigued by your comments about how the plot beats being breezily dealt with, and the comparisons to La La Land. The beauty of La La Land, for me, is in the controversial ending. Things don’t work out in Hollywood fashion, reality doesn’t match the fantasy, but in the end, it is still good. Bittersweet, hard, but good. And the film uses a larger than life format (the flashy Hollywood musical) to tell a very small and ordinary story (two people fall in love and chase their dreams, and some of it works out and some of it doesn’t).

    I appreciate this thoughtful review! I think the hardest thing to write about is something that’s kind of meh. Most commentary I’ve seen on The Greatest Showman has been either “It’s amazing!” or “It’s terrible!” Maybe I’ll go catch a cheap morning show or something. 🙂

  4. Abigail

    @abigail-solie

    I really appreciated this post because it helped me pinpoint why the movie left feeling slightly unsatisfied. The movie was great, the music is catchy, the choreography was fun to watch, and the heroic aspect of it was very satisfying, but overall there wasn’t enough substance to really allow the viewer to relate to and sympathize with the characters.

  5. Jason Van Bemmel

    I just saw it, after hearing the music, and I loved it. I understand what you’re saying about how quickly conflicts are resolved. It is a family-friendly movie, and so fairer comparisons would be with other PG-rated musicals. Within that genre, I think this movie is excellent. I think the actors did a really good job telling their stories and showing their pain through the songs. So much was communicated through the way they sang. It was quick, but that’s not the same as easy. It was definitely not easy. The songs are among the best I’ve ever heard in any movie, and they work really well in the context of the movie. So, I understand your perspective, but I felt differently.

  6. Sharon

    I left a comment on Facebook but I’d like to leave one of my favorite book quotes here:

    “If only people would realize that light-hearted and gay things were not any less significant than the violent and brutish, what a step forward it would be. Because a song, a book, a play, a picture or anything created was gay it did not necessarily follow that it was trivial. It might well be, mused Mrs. Bailey gazing into the moving sunshine with unseeing eyes, a finer thing, because it had been fashioned with greater care and artifice; emotion remembered and translated to give pleasure, rather than emotion remembered and evincing only an involuntary and quite hideous howl.” Miss Read, Thrush Green

  7. Jenna Badeker

    @jennab

    Jason, you make a good point about drawing comparisons between other films that could be considered family-friendly. And I totally agree with you about the emotion conveyed through the songs by the actors. If I think about other family-friendly musicals, I think of films like Moana, and musicals like Seussical, where the characters struggles’ are allowed to marinate for a bit before the resolutions come. Both are works that have moved me greatly. I’m so glad The Greatest Showman was a hit with you (and possibly your family)! Long live musical theatre!

  8. Hannah M.

    My response to this review:

     

    It seems as if your main complaint is the dishonesty of it, the way the movie rushes through trouble to get to the happy ending.  And I will not deny, this is not a movie about honest struggles.  This is not a movie that is telling the truth about pain, not a movie that takes a hard look at the darkness.  All the same, I absolutely loved the movie and I’d like to tell you why.

     

    There is something to be said for honest reckoning, in the dirt with the reality of pain.  Christian story-telling in particular likes to skip that bit, and it leaves the reader with a good feeling but nothing of substance.  Nothing to apply to reality.  The Greatest Showman, though, is not a movie MEANT to be an honest reckoning.  It is a movie about innocence, about being a child and dreaming big dreams.  P.T. Barnum risks everything he has over and over again, with the recklessness of a child who doesn’t understand consequences – and somehow it works out for him. Even when it doesn’t work out financially, love and friendship come through to save the day.

     

    The movie is a movie about ridiculous hope.  About how preposterous our dreams are and how compelled we are to chase after them all the same.  The song “Otherside” with Barnum and Carlyle is a song that exposes this, a song that appeals to the deep desires within us all, the desire to “get away from the same old part”, to be a part of something big and exciting.  How many of us settle for something practical and logical and safe, but still have an inner longing to be out there doing something else?  Something crazy?  Like starting a circus…?  God has put a desire for adventure, excitement, passion, within all of humanity.  And I’m not trying to judge the merits of this particular adventure, not trying to say that Barnum’s dream is a good dream, but it is certainly an adventure.

     

    There are other themes in the movie, things you mentioned, like love and marriage and friendship and acceptance and equality and justice and stuff that’s actually important in life.  But none of it is the main focus, and none of it is developed enough to feel true to life.  The main focus of the movie, I’d like to suggest, is a celebration of unfettered hope.  Hope that doesn’t know about the real world yet, hope that is childish and confident.  Hope that believes easily and accepts easily and doesn’t stop to worry.  Just goes for it.  And isn’t that the kind of faith we are supposed to have?  Faith is confidence and hope put together, and I personally find it exceedingly difficult.  Maybe this is why Jesus said we should come as little children.  Maybe this is why I loved this movie, a movie celebrating the kind of faith I wish I could have; not in the success of my dreams, but in the faithfulness of God to supply me with good adventures.  The ones worth living.

     

    So the conclusion of this story is that hope doesn’t disappoint.  In the end, problems can be solved and conflict can be forgiven and everything works out.  The important things are not lost.  It’s a happy ending, the kind we love to see.  And in a way, it is a True ending.  Our dreams will not always “work out” for us, but our faith in God will never be disappointed.  God always comes through.  And I think that makes The Greatest Showman a story worth telling, makes it something more than just a “feel good” movie – even though it never truly touches the honesty of the dark.

     

  9. Elia Tyson

    @eliatyson

    I’ve gotta disagree… I don’t even like musicals, and this movie left me trying to stop myself from dancing all the way out of the mall. And then on the subway for the next 30 minutes. (That NEVER happens.)

    So yeah, the music was amazing, and I thought the story flowed perfectly, blending all the plot elements together better than any other movie I’ve ever seen. Never once did I think “man, I which that scene had be shorter” or “hey, I wanted to see more”.

    I understand where you are coming from. The film left quite a few blanks. I filled them in in my own way, and what I came up with was amazing, but I can see how you could see it quite differently.

    (Spoilers.) I think think when all is said and done, it’s a redemption story. Barnum started well, spreading freinship and love and diversity (great sub-themes, by the way), but then lost his way. Lost his fire. He ended up putting himself in some bad situations, which had serious consequences. But then… “From Now On.” The finale of the film is completely satisfying. He confesses that what he did was wrong, and is forgiven, by his friends and his family. Then the scene where Phillip tells him he saved his ten percent… ???? that was just amazing. Barnum gets the circus running again, hands the hat to Phillip (and no, I don’t think that he left, just handed off the leading role), and spends more time with his family. Perfect.

    In summary, I would say this: The film had some flaws, but at the end of it, when I walked out of the theatre thinking that it had done something completely, totally, undoubtably right. Whatever it was, I wish Hollywood would do it more often.

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