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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Greatest Showman  (2017)
4 Stars
Directed by Michael Gracey.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Paul Sparks, Fredric Lehne, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Sam Humphrey, Gayle Rankin, Shannon Holtzapffel, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Shawn Marshall.
2017 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, December 14, 2017.
"The Greatest Showman" is as joyous and magical as any film released in 2017, a wholly original musical arriving so fully formed, so vibrantly accomplished, and so clear of vision it feels as if it's been a beloved classic for 50 years. In loosely adapting for the big screen the life of famed showman P. T. Barnum, director Michael Gracey (making a dazzling directorial debut) and screenwriters Jenny Bicks (2014's "Rio 2") and Bill Condon (2006's "Dreamgirls") have crafted a pair of quite literally soaring love stories set against the backdrop of the museum-turned-sideshow business Barnum created. Initially focused on little more than making money for himself and his family—supportive wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and young daughters Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely)—P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) ultimately gave voices to his hired "human curiosities," the disenfranchised souls living in the margins of a heretofore unaccepting 19th-century society. Emboldened by a sparkling soundtrack from songwriter-composers Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (2016's "La La Land"), a miraculous score from John Debney (2011's "No Strings Attached") and Joseph Trapanese (2016's "Allegiant"), and lustrous lensing from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (2017's "Life"), "The Greatest Showman" is glorious cinematic spectacle done exactly right.

A quixotic marriage of image and sound, the picture taps, claps, belts and swings its way into a place of unfettered nirvana. Its guiding force is the emotion it inspires, and inspire it does; less than ten minutes in, its breathtaking second musical number, "A Million Dreams," had this writer valiantly struggling to see through the tears as the lowly P. T.'s childhood friendship and star-crossed romance with the well-to-do Charity outlasts years of life pulling them in opposite directions as they finally reunite in adulthood and begin their futures together. Resounding with truth and the unadorned idealism of true love found, this segment plays like a perfect five-minute short in and of itself, an exquisitely edited, goosebump-inducing montage pinpointing the passage of time and the out-on-a-limb chances people must sometimes take to make their wildest aspirations a reality.

Again and again, "The Greatest Showman" lives up to its title. While the film takes liberties with the details of P. T. Barnum's life (for one, he had four children, not two), said creative license is expected within a melodious genre where searing grit and historical authenticity often take a backseat to pure, disarming matters of the heart. It's all in the name of the feelings coursing through its veins, and the results are transcendent. In addition to the genuinely felt relationship between P. T. and Charity, a more forbidden pairing forms between Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a young Broadway producer who becomes Barnum's business partner, and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a mixed-race trapeze artist in Barnum's troupe. Zac Efron (2017's "Baywatch") and Zendaya (2017's "Spider-Man: Homecoming") share a tremendously charismatic spark, the kind which is instantly root-worthy; a high-flying duet they privately share in the ring, called "Rewrite the Stars," is enchanting to behold as they imagine a world where they can let their love be known while changing minds in the process.

The impact of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul's music contributions cannot be overstated. Each and every one of their original songs is a lovely, stirring showstopper, so memorable it's amazing the lot of them haven't been rotational mainstays for decades. The poetic, powerful lyrics and beautifully eclectic harmonies threaten to outdo themselves each time a character breaks out into song, while their contemporary edge meshes brilliantly with the old-fashioned, irreplaceable tone and feel of musicals from the 1960s.

Beginning with Hugh Jackman's (2017's "Logan") foot-stomping show opener "The Greatest Show," the film is off and running, masterfully juggling involving, economical storytelling with tunes that are always deepening the narrative while moving it forward. The aforementioned "A Million Dreams" culminates in a moonlit rooftop dance between Jackman and a divine Michelle Williams (2016's "Manchester by the Sea") that epitomizes everything there is to love about musicals. Jackman and Efron burn up the barstools in a shots-swilling song-and-dance number called "The Other Side," cementing the working relationship between their P. T. and Phillip. Williams, meanwhile, receives the ethereal solo "Tightrope," her Charity eliciting a devotion to holding down her family even as her husband is off on a world tour alongside his latest act, famous singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

Lind's power ballad "Never Enough" is quite surely enough to give one chills, doing everything needed to convey how special her voice is—and how important it is to expanding P. T.'s business venture. Rebecca Ferguson (2017's "The Snowman") is as eye-catching as she was in her very different breakthrough role in 2015's "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation," giving the philanthropic Jenny Lind varying shades, not all of them equally virtuous to her charitable donations. And then there's the film's arguable centerpiece number "This Is Me," an anthem of empowerment and acceptance in the face of adversity delivered by the exceptionally talented Keala Settle (2015's "Ricki and the Flash"), as bearded performer Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle). Settle brings down the house with the sheer might of her voice, doing this single-ready hit-in-the-making full justice.

"The Greatest Showman" is set in the 1800s but speaks loud and clear to modern audiences. Its thematic relevance—about prejudice and ignorance, about the pressures of keeping up appearances and the superficiality of social status, about morality and the struggle for the American Dream—endures today, just as it must have a century and a half ago. Late in the picture, P. T. Barnum has a heart-to-heart with one of his longtime scathing critics, New York Herald founder and publisher James Gordon Bennett (Paul Spark). Bennett makes it clear he has never been a fan of P. T.'s work, but also has no way to deny how much joy he has brought others. "A celebration of humanity" is how he fundamentally describes his circus—a sentiment which could just as easily have been in reference to the film in question. "The Greatest Showman" is a hopeful, even profound, tale of triumph over adversity and the intimate bonds which make life worth everything, a special motion picture that, to paraphrase another of its sublime songs, "comes alive" from frame one and enchants for every second after. A new entry in the pantheon of movie musical favorites has been born.
© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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