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The Greatest Showman

09 Jan

The Greatest Showman – directed by Michael Gracey. Musical. 105 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★
The Story: An orphan boy, spurned by his betters, rises to prominence, wealth, and expression through an ability to amaze the public with the odd, the daring, the questionable, and the spectacular.
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Hugh Jackman is an actor very hard to miscast. Tall, lithe, handsome as the day is long, geared to acting with a winning zest, he plays villains and rotters with the same dispatch as he played Curly in Oklahoma! He is the only principal actor in the world with the talent, background,and range to play the lead in a major film musical. He is the springboard of this film and he’s adept in all departments.

The problem is that some of the departments are not adept. You listen for a song in the songs that are sung and they sound just like other songs in other musicals that others have sung in just the same way, which is to say without distinction. Song, but no melody, song no one can hum, song that does not support the wit of the lyric.

And if the lyric has wit, you cannot tell because the sound recording of modern film musicals is atrocious. It’s partly mic-ing the actors. It’s partly the fault of melodies which do not support lyrics. When Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds dance together, you hear every word and every word connects with every note and every note tells the story required at that moment.

But here you cannot make out the words. All you are perhaps meant to get is a smear of the thing the characters are supposed to be feeling. Rushes of energy and sweeps of frenzy are meant to convey what? – enthusiasm? hope? a change of heart?

What a shame! Because a great deal of wit is evident in this show. Marvelous costumes, raves of choreography. Surprises and entertainment at every turn.

One of the difficulties with the Phineas T. Barnum story is that Jackman is too old to play Barnum when young. He is paired with Michelle Williams in the stereotypical role of the society girl (Alexis Smith) who marries hypogamicly below her class, but marries talent. Williams is an actor of sterling resources. Give her a scene with mundane demands, she always brings something from those resources that capture us with its counterpoint. But she is also too old.

To youthen things up the screenplay supplies us with handsome young Zac Efron as Barnum’s partner (in real life Bailey but here Carlyle, for some reason) and a mulatto trapeze artiste girlfriend played by Zendaya. Will Carlyle cross the color-line? It’s a cheap trick and an unworthy one, considering Barnum’s own bigotry.

All this detours our attention from Barnum himself and his wonder-working and leaves the film unfocussed. Miscegenation is touched on. Barnum’s snobbery is touched on. His workaholism is touched on. His fraudulence is touched on. Mob violence is touched on. Prejudice against the physically challenged is touched on. And the musical touches down on all this like a mechanical firefly, putting in cameo appearances of its own themes.

And yet you want the whole thing to succeed as well as the energy, color, vibrancy, magic, fun, and superabundant talent succeed in bedazzling us.

But the whole shebang is simply manufactured. Jackman and the director introduce the film by congratulating the audience for being in a movie theatre to watch it, and at the end we are told that 15,000 were given jobs in the making of it – dull remarks which P.T. Barnum would have exploited more vivaciously.

We’ve all seen spectacles about Barnum’ accomplishments – Rogers and Hart’s musical Jumbo, and de Mille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. And I have been to the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers’ Circus in the ’40’s when the freak show which made Barnum’s name (Tom Thumb, Jumbo the elephant, and The Siamese Twins) still included a magical juggler of boxes, a fat lady, a thin man, a sword swallower, a tattoed man, a bearded lady, and Gargantua and Toto, gorillas who glowered. (That’s all they did but it was plenty.)

This was in the heyday of three-ring acrobats, aerialists, tight-rope walkers, the Wallendas, clowns including Emmett Kelley, dog acts, dancing elephants, and prancing horses, a tamer of lions, and a flight of hundred white doves released en mass to swarm through air of the Madison Square Garden and back again to the woman whose arms had a minute ago released them.

Showmanship!

Animal acts gone, side-shows gone, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus gone. Not forgotten.

But, like this film, soon to be.

 
 
 
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