The old Technicolor 20th Century Fox logo kick-starting this razzle-dazzle musical is enough of a hint that what follows will be a determinedly old-fashioned wallow in nostalgia, and be as gloriously fictionalised as all of those great biopics from Hollywood’s golden era.
Does it matter? Not one iota, as commercials director and visual-effects wizard Michael Gracey’s feature debut is aimed at providing pure musical entertainment of a sumptuous vintage we haven’t seen since the genre’s 1950s heyday. In that regard, Gracey’s effortless flair echoes that of his larger-than-life subject, Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman), who pioneered the circus environment, the term “show business” and was the originator of the Big Top tent.
The first master showman and self-confessed “Prince of Humbug” (many critics loathed his overdone hyperbole), PT Barnum brought dubious sideshow attractions to towns all over America during the mid-19th century and eventually created his “Greatest Show on Earth” three-ring circus.
In the broadstroked screenplay by Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City) and Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast, Dreamgirls), impoverished Barnum marries his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams), sinks all his money into opening New York’s first museum of curiosities, featuring the famous attractions Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle), and sees his fortunes – and ego – escalate.
After importing Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), Barnum gains high-society respectability and starts shunning the people who made him famous. But when he spurns Lind’s romantic overture, she walks out on a lucrative nationwide tour leaving him bankrupt.
An arson attack carried out by protesters over his “freak show” leaves Barnum’s acts homeless, prompting him to have a rethink about his return to the big time. And in another subplot, wealthy actor Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) becomes Barnum’s showbiz partner and falls in love with mixed-race trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), much to the displeasure of his upper-class parents.
This bowdlerised biography is pure soap-opera schmaltz that fleetingly touches on the melodramatic highlights of Barnum’s real life solely to provide some vague context to the extravagantly staged song-and-dance numbers. These are exuberantly performed, overloaded with fantasy camp and cascades of kitsch.
The virtually entirely sung-through narrative features contemporary songs by award-winning La La Land lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. While the pop, classic American Songbook, Broadway and power ballads all work in their flash, bang, wallop moments, none are as melodically memorable as Never Enough, Lind’s show stopper, perfectly mimed by Ferguson to Loren Allred’s brilliant vocal.
The kingpin of this entire whipped-cream delight is of course Hugh Jackman, whose thrilling musicality has never been in question either on stage (The Boy from Oz, Oklahoma) or film (Les Miserables). Jackman is the light-on-his-feet Gene Kelly of the whole kit and cabaret caboodle, the spark that evokes endless doses of spirit and charm, the dynamo that glitzes up the screen with sheer superstar quality and jazz-hands pizzazz. High School Musical wunderkind Zac Efron is no slouch in that department either, and stands his ground with two duets, The Other Side (with Jackman) and Rewrite the Stars (with Zendaya).
The Greatest Showman is the kind of musical that depicts abject poverty as a fun birthday party on a tenement roof top, star-crossed romance as an acrobatic rope act, and adultery as a dreamy photo-op. So it’s exactly like the 1980s Broadway musical hit Barnum, which also used bullet points about the circus innovator as a mere excuse to twirl jugglers, clowns, acrobats and puppet animals in front of an audience for maximum marvel value.
It perhaps never soars to the engagingly fanciful stratosphere of Moulin Rouge! (it’s nearest cinematic equivalent) or touches the heart like La La Land or zings like Singin’ in the Rain. But what it is in essence is a joyously uplifting potpourii of visual resplendence, stylish choreography and solid gold magic, one engineered to approximate the lavish spectacle the movie musical once offered – a winning combination that won’t fail to resonate with every admirer of the all-singing, all-dancing art form.
The Greatest Showman is released in cinemas on Boxing Day