The Quarantine Stream: 'The Greatest Showman' is Irresponsible Nonsense Filled With Damn Great Songs

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieThe Greatest Showman

Where You Can Stream It: Disney+

The Pitch: What if the life story of infamous American entrepreneur and entertainer P.T. Barnum got ruthlessly sanitized, stripped of everything that made him messy and despicable, and was told via musical numbers that are, quite frankly, total bangers? That’s the conundrum of The Greatest Showman, a film that is about as historically irresponsible as movies get while also being filled with great freakin’ songs.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: It’s hard to call The Greatest Showman itself essential viewing. There is a great deal to dislike here, a great deal that will make anyone with a passing knowledge of American history uncomfortable with how fast and loose the film plays with basic facts. But there’s no getting around it: those songs rule so hard and they’re shot, edited and performed with an energy that cannot be denied.

Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, eight of the nine songs in the film are genuinely exceptional (“Never Enough” suffers because actress Rebecca Ferguson is painfully dubbed) and I found myself gleefully revisiting them now that the film is on Disney+. Yes, dear reader: I revisited the songs and the songs only, fast-forwarding through the nonsense between them and being swept up in their visual grandeur and stunning staging. While the non-singing bits suggest director Michael Gracey doesn’t know a damn thing about telling a cinematic story, the numbers are frequently incredible, blending modern pop sensibilities, dream-like fantasia, and classic Broadway spectacle into sequences that demand to be played at high volume.

What is there to say about Hugh Jackman beyond noting he still would’ve been one of the the biggest movie stars in the world if he was a song and dance man in the golden age of Hollywood? What is there to say about that big duet between Zendaya and Zac Efron, which just radiates SEX in every frame? What is there to say about numbers like “The Greatest Show” and “This is Me,” powerful pop ballads that make your hair stand on end? I’ve listened to the soundtrack to this film an embarrassing number of times and now that it’s streaming on Disney+, I think I’ll be fast-forwarding to the musical numbers often.

So, what does that mean for the rest of the film? As mentioned above, the sequences between songs inspire eye rolls, as characters declare what they want with no nuance and mechanical plotting forces the action forward without grace, awkwardly filling the time between songs (the plot-heavy “The Other Side,” a spectacular duet between Jackman and Efron, suggests that more plotting via song would’ve been ideal). And while the film’s constant messaging about accepting each other’s differences and embracing those who are the different is very pleasant and well-intentioned, it’s hard to shake how very icky it is to elevate to cinematic sainthood P.T. Barnum, a despicable exploitation artist who took advantage of “freaks” and entertainers to fill his pockets, a man who purchased a paralyzed Black woman (because slavery) and exhibited her as George Washington’s elderly nurse (she wasn’t) and then sold tickets to her autopsy when she died (what the absolute fuck). This guy gets to be a beacon of modern liberal sensibilities in a glossy musical? This guy?

So where does this leave The Greatest Showman? It’s certainly not the first Hollywood movie to reshape history for its own purposes, but it’s certainly one of the grandest and most recent offenders. It’s hard to feel okay about a movie going this far to sanitize an era and its people in the name of “maybe we should all love each other!” emotional platitudes. It’s irresponsible at best and grotesque at worst.

But god damn it. Those songs are so good and those musical numbers so perfect. It’s almost like they exist to trick you into thinking this is a great movie rather than some great sequences connected by bullshit.

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