Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman is exactly the kind of musical that people who complain about not liking musicals think all musicals are like. And I say this as a person who still has to occasionally defend the musical as a filmmaking genre, explaining that not all of them are full of gaudy show tunes. But yet, here we are, and once again I have to be frustrated by the fact that a movie like The Greatest Showman exists, while movies like Tommy (1975) or The Phantom of the Paradise (1974) are stuck in the same genre and all lumped together.
It’s not even that The Greatest Showman is unwatchable; it’s just a kind of garishly aggressive musical that gets tiresome pretty quickly, a very modern type of musical that really depends on the tastes of the viewer. So much of what makes a musical palatable (though not the only thing, of course) is its music. The Greatest Showman has nary a song that will stick with you once you make it to the parking lot. Worse, the bulk of the songs are overstuffed and overcooked, very bombastic, produced to an inch of their lives and just screaming “musical.” Of course, a lot of this comes down to taste, but most of the music sounded like something that would be pumped into a shopping mall.
Of course, music doesn’t make or break a musical, but debut director Gracey doesn’t really offer all that much. Sure, there’s some cinematic flair, but none of it feels all that exciting. At best, it feels as if Gracey understands all of the basics of what a musical should have, without adding anything to the genre himself. The Greatest Showman never really rises above being ephemeral entertainment. The camera moves around, a lot of stuff shifts around in the frame, but nothing feels more truly inspired, never climbing past basic pastiche.
At the same time, it’s not like The Greatest Showman‘s lack of true verve is any real waste. The story, which is supposed to be the true-life tale of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), is whittled down to nearly nothing. Not only is there barely any plot to latch onto, the “true life” aspects of Barnum’s story feel very movie-fied. This isn’t necessarily a drawback. I’ve seen a number of critics who’ve complained about this, people who I suppose want stark realism in their circus musical. This isn’t so much an issue for me since I think this type of movie should be entertaining before it’s factually accurate. But it’s not entertaining, which loops us around to my original problems with the movie. It’s active and colorful, but in no really affecting or memorable way. For some, this may simply be enough, but it’s not for me. Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl. Now playing at AMC Classic River Hills, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.