Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Greatest Showman

     “There’s a sucker born every minute” (maybe I’m one of them)
                                   Quoted phrase attributed (probably falsely) to P.T. Barnum

                                                Review by Ken Burke

            The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017)

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): This movie's a musical based very loosely on a small segment of the public life of circus-impresario P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) in the mid-19th century as he rises from poverty to a being a successful purveyor of spectacle along with “unique persons and curiosities” in Manhattan.  Although his shows’ popularity allow him and his family to live in luxury he still wants revenge against the rich who’ve rejected him so he attempts to increase his social stature through promoting a series of concerts featuring famed Swedish singer, Jenny Lind.  This venture’s successful as well, but being on the road with his star leads to declining enthusiasm for his NYC Circus as well as a strain on his marriage, all of which must be resolved through thoughtful (at best) performances of song and dance.  ... Showman’s been relatively successful itself at the box-office, despite mediocre critical responses; it's still easily available if none of the new releases interest you or if you’ve already seen all of the higher-quality-fare.  However, it’s been out almost 2 months so if you’re thinking about seeing it you’d better act soon.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: We begin in an unspecified year, early in the 19th century (roughly 1820) when young Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum’s (Ellis Rubin) working with his tailor father, Philo (Will Swenson), somewhere near NYC (biographies of the man indicate Connecticut as the location), where a wealthy client, Benjamin Hallett (Fredric Lehne), has a young daughter, Charity (Skylar Dunn), whom P.T.’s infatuated with, despite her father’s objections due to his early decision the boy will never be able to support his precious daughter with the kind of leisurely aristocratic life she deserves (in Dad's opinion, not hers).  The boy doesn’t give up, though, even when Charity’s sent off to finishing school, as they keep in touch via letters until, as adults (Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams), they marry, much to her father’s disgust.  Having moved to NYC where Barnum finds a job as a shipping company clerk, they eventually have 2 daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), but they become near destitute when the job collapses with the firm’s bankruptcy, leaving P.T. to borrow money (using his former employer’s now-sunken-ships as collateral with an uninformed banker) to set up Barnum’s American Museum, a collection of stuffed animals, wax figures, and other oddities he thinks will be appealing to the general public (wrong!).

 Upping his ante about people’s morbid curiosity he expands his showcase with live acts featuring a cluster of human oddities—including a dwarf, renamed General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey); a very tall man, christened the Irish Giant (Radu Spinghel); the Huge Man (Daniel Everidge), whose weight is exaggerated to 750 pounds; Prince Constantine (Shannon Holtzapffel), with tattoos all over his body; the Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.), his body covered with thick hair; and, most noted and featured, Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), the Bearded Lady—along with a sister-brother-team of African-American trapeze artists, Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), all of whom offer performance numbers in the museum’s (renamed Barnum’s Circus) large open space with surrounding balconies for the increasingly-large-crowds, fascinated with the “freak” show, while Barnum faces hostility from local newspapers for exploiting these people along with threats of violence from local toughs* who don’t want these diversified humans to be celebrated in "their" city.

*Goons whose menacing presence should not be discounted if you’ve previously seen what such Manhattan thugs are capable of in Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002) with opposing forces led by “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) clashing in a fictionalized version of the actual New York Draft Riots of 1863; the principal events of … Showman take place in about 1850 but Gangs … also has bloody events in 1846 so these stories are roughly contemporaneous (both being highly fictionalized from their historical sources).

On the left, Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind; on the right, the actual Jenny Lind.
 In an effort to rebut these negative attitudes toward his thriving business (with enough capital to afford a countryside mansion, although money can’t truly buy happiness as P.T. learns when Caroline’s ballet ambitions are met with scorn from classmates further advanced in their training), Barnum partners up with (semi-fictional) playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who immediately develops a secret crush on Anne, then arranges for Barnum to take his troupe to London for an audience with Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin).  While in Europe, Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson [vocal dubbing by Loren Allred]), the melodious “Swedish Nightingale,” whom he convinces to come to the U.S. for a tour.  She does (clearly infatuated with Barnum, which he acknowledges a bit but mostly sees her as a successful business opportunity; Carlyle, on the other hand, gets bolder in his attraction toward Anne, which earns him distain from her brother, his parents, and finally Anne herself, not willing to endure nor subject him to the hostile social reaction to an interracial romance), performs a smashingly-successful concert in NYC (in a proper theatre, not Barnum’s gritty Circus), but at the after-show-celebration P.T. turns away his “freaks” who wanted to meet Lind, afraid their presence would undercut his attempted rise in society; they take to the streets with Lettie leading them in a defiant song, “This Is Me,” resulting in a triumphant finale back at their Circus. (Oh, did I not yet mention this is a full-blown-musical [9 numbers by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, writers of the showcase songs in La La Land {Damien Chazelle, 2016; review in our December 21, 2016 posting}], with much of what I’ve described above presented in performance rather than dialogue? Most of the first 10 minutes is all sung, but more on that below.)

 Soon Barnum’s on the road with Lind; Charity’s at home with the girls, missing him deeply; Lind truly falls in love with Barnum, but when he comes to his senses with an announcement he’s returning home after that night’s performance she causes a scandal by kissing him on stage during the curtain-call, then cancels the rest of the tour; he returns to NYC but during his carriage ride to his family he sees the Circus ablaze (resulting from a confrontation between the goons and the “freaks”) with Carlyle rushing in to save Anne, although she escapes on her own as Barnum braves the flames to save Carlyle, the latter suffering severe burns.  Now Barnum’s business is destroyed, his reputation tarnished (front-page-stories about an assumed affair with Lind, punctuated with the kiss photo), the family home foreclosed upon, so Charity takes their daughters to live with her parents.  After a bout of drunken depression, though, the Circus troupe cheers up P.T. who vows to rebuild their successful enterprise (but in a huge tent on cheap property rather than a new, too-expensive building), reunites with his wife and children, gets a cash infusion from Carlyle to cement their ongoing partnership (Phillip's now solidly connected with Anne), as everything comes to a grand finale in the new location (with another extravagant number, “The Greatest Show”) as Barnum hands over the Circus operation to Carlyle so he can do what all retiring politicians and athletes do, “spend more time with his family” (which he actually does, celebrating Caroline’s improving ballet skills).⇐  Whether that’s the end of this story depends on what becomes of the speculation about The Greatest Showman now evolving into an easy-to-translate-screen-to-stage Broadway musical.

On the left, the actual P.T. Barnum; on the right, Hugh Jackman as Barnum.
So What? I’m not known for being a grand fan of movie musicals (unless they either have spectacular production values [The Wizard of Oz {Victor Fleming, 1939}, An American in Paris {Vincente Minnelli, 1951}, Singin’ in the Rain {Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952}, La La Land] or offer some impactful social commentary [West Side Story {Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961}, Cabaret {Bob Fosse, 1972}, Jesus Christ Superstar {Norman Jewison, 1973}, Chicago {Rob Marshall, 2002}]), so imagine my surprise when, after finally deciding to see The Greatest Showman (largely due to a dearth of other choices; a few more details below) imagine my glee (actually, I did enjoy the TV series “Glee” [Fox, 2009-2015] just for its ongoing audacity, plus the musical numbers were well-produced, often added effective emotional impact to those high-school/then college-oriented stories) at learning … Showman also falls loudly into this genre, one oft neglected in contemporary cinema.  (I will say in retrospect, though, it was considerably better time spent than when I was likewise surprised to find a local [Hayward, CA] play I was attending was also a musical, but even my musicals-loving-wife, Nina, wasn’t aware of it until we walked up to the theatre that night to see—of all stories to be put to song!—Little Women [book, Allan Knee, based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel; lyrics, Mindi Dickstein; music, Jason Howland; first performed on Broadway in 2005].)  Relatively speaking, … Showman’s a pleasant-enough-experience, which I was reasonably entertained by and Nina was generally delighted with, while our viewing companion (who’s been invested in staging theatrical productions—or at least being around such from his professional-stage-parents—for his 67 years) found it to be totally awful in conception, execution, and anything else he could think of, except possibly running time (for him it finished in a merciful 1 hr., 45 min.).

 He was barely mollified to learn from me (once I found out … Showman’s a musical I did background research to see what else I might be into with it) the storyline’s acknowledged to be highly fictionalized (so the chronologically-incorrect costumes and musical numbers aren’t intended to be historically-based, along with a good bit of the plot development) but did accept it was energetic in its (in his opinion) absurdities, although much too melodramatic to be all that enjoyable (nothing further came of our viewing differences during post-screening-dinner, but our range of reactions might give you a good prelude to what’s covered in this review’s next section).  However, if you’d like to explore further these sources on the Top 5 Facts the movie got wrong (4:17 video), a more-detailed-article on fact vs. fiction in ... Showman (especially concerning Jenny Lind), or a less negative approach to its existence (25 facts about this movie, a fast-paced 8:19 video), I’d encourage you to do so as all this information combined might seal the deal for you about whether you care to rush out to find it before it goes the merry way of other failed-awards-hopefuls from 2017, making room for the usual dreck that’s unloaded in our moviehouses during these pre-Oscar doldrums.  (I’m looking at you, Winchester [Michael and Peter Spierig]; even though I lived in San Jose, CA for 3 years I never explored this actual [haunted?] architectural-oddity, but I’m still more likely to drive the 50 or so miles it would take to get to it now rather than spend even the 99 min. needed to watch this movie in a very local theater, despite the presence of the marvelous Helen Mirren [Rotten Tomatoes, 13% positive reviews; Metacritic, an unlikely-higher 28% average score].)

Bottom Line Final Comments: The Greatest Showman’s not being consistently perceived as one of the greatest shows of 2017, with lackluster critical responses (RT 55% positive reviews, MC 48% average score) offset by solid box-office-sales ($137.4 million after 7 weeks in domestic [U.S.-Canada] venues [worldwide total of $291 million, a bit more popular in overseas markets], a respectful return on the $84 million production budget [low cost, given its dazzling visual appearance and immense efforts to make those spectacular circus acts look so impressive], although you’d think after that long in release there’d be even more money in the till if audiences were really hooked on it [by comparison, Star Wars: The Last Jedi {Rian Johnson, 2017; review in our December 22, 2017 posting} has taken in about $614.5 million domestically—worldwide about $1.3 billion—after a comparable 8 weeks or even Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle {Jake Kasdan, 2017} has a $858.4 million global gross {$353.3 million of it in domestic receipts}]) and a Golden Globe win for Best Original Song (“This Is Me”), an honor repeated with an Oscar nomination for that same triumphant tune (more on that just below), yet on the somber side there have been few other major awards or nominations for  … Showman* so it’s not really lived up to pre-release hype as being among the outstanding candidates for 2017 honors.  As noted, I’m no great fan of musicals nor did I find most of the songs all that interesting (except “This Is Me”), but if you might want to catch this movie before it disappears it’s still in about 2,588 domestic houses so if you’re that rare combination (as decreed by stereotypes, of course) who’s willing to fill your now-empty-football weekends (a bit more on that below as well) with a musical about social acceptance of non-normative-types then The Greatest Showman might at least be worth your bargain-matinee-money.

*It did get 2 other Globe noms, for Best Picture-Musical or Comedy and Best Actor-Musical or Comedy (Jackman).  Maybe the filmmakers also found some solace in being nominated for Campy Flick of the Year by the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA), but they may not have appreciated (nor understood) their win for Worst Foreign Film (?) from the Seattle-based Yoga Awards, competing with LA’s Golden Raspberry Awards (the Razzies) for negative “acclaim.”

 Although I attempt to end every review with a Musical Metaphor for a final consideration on the subject at hand (but from the perspective of my also-adored-aural-arts), sometimes I’m stumped for a choice but usually can rationalize something anyway, no matter how far-fetched.  However, because the movie being explored here is filled with music itself—especially a strong central-showpiece-song that might well take home Oscar gold—the choice becomes quite easy this time, so I’ll turn this review over to Keala Settle (fake beard and all) to belt out “This Is Me” (from 2017’s The Greatest Showman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) album) at com/watch?v=UV9BmH0tuH4, a video  (please bear with the quiet audio at first; it intensifies as the song builds) enhanced with the lyrics overlaying the action of scenes from the movie as Lettie Lutz and her collaborators defiantly proclaim their inclusion in a society that says “ ‘Hide away’ […] ‘No one’ll love you as you are’ But I won’t let them break me down to dust I know that there’s a place for us For we are glorious […] I am who I’m meant to be, this is me Look out ‘cause here I come […] I’m not scared to be seen I make no apologies, this is me […] And I know that I deserve your love There’s nothing I’m not worthy of.”  Even if this song is all that anyone remembers of The Greatest Showman 6 years (6 months, 6 weeks) from now, at least its demand for acceptance and inclusion will get a spotlight performance during the upcoming March 4, 2018 Oscars broadcast, adding another plea to the increasing global voices calling out for respect for everyone rather than anyone being decried as unworthy simply because of financial, ethnic, or citizenship status.  “ ‘Hide away,’ they say ‘ ‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts’ [… to which these so-called-“freaks” respond] I’m marching on to the beat I drum […] We are bursting through the barricades And reaching for the sun.”  … Showman ends with a quote from P.T. Barnum: "The noblest art is making other people happy"; this movie attempts such in an uplifting (if overblown, sappy) manner, but its true value is speaking out against prejudiced exclusions, a worthy focus for all our fragmented global societies.

 I also try to get to at least 2 new options to explore for each posting, both because I’m a strong advocate of a wide variety of cinematic experiences and to give you readers variety in what I cover in hopes at least 1 of my choices will appeal to your tastes.  However, the combination of what’s available (as a good number of the last 2017 releases are being held over now the Oscar nominations are out, but I’ve seen most of them—except for the long wait for Mudbound [Dee Rees, 2017], which seems to be available only on Netflix streaming at this point—with just no interest in Jumanji …, Maze Runner: The Death Cure [Wes Ball], or Paddington 2 [Paul King]) plus some other logistics commitments left me with just the 1 availability this week, so in an attempt to at least give you some further Musical Metaphors I’ll turn to the totally-non-cinematic-topic (unless you see TV commercials as Short Films [probably makes sense with the revered Ridley Scott-direction of Apple's "1984" ad which introduced the Macintosh computer, in 1984 naturally]) of the Super Bowl to find some music appropriate to the Philadelphia Eagles’ long-sought-victory in that annual competition (no previous win, although in 1960 they got the National Football League title prior to the merger with the American Football League and the resulting world-championship-extravaganza, now contested 52 times); besides, the New England Patriots have won the prized Lombardi trophy 5 times, so I’m glad to see the honor shared a bit (even though I’ve got my own local [emerging?] sports dynasty to celebrate with the Golden State Warriors hopefully headed for their 3rd National Basketball Association title in the last 4 years [if their defense can improve], so I guess if I were a New Englander [as are many of my in-laws] I’d feel different about those Patriots).

 Anyway, for the winners I’ll offer the Steve Miller Band’s "Fly Like an Eagle" (from the 1976 album of the same name) because the Philadelphia Eagles teams and their loyal fans over the years embraced the idea that “Time keeps on “slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ Into the future* [until victory finally emerges]); for the runner-ups I think B.B. King’s soulful rendition of "Stormy Monday" would be appropriate (the lyric “the eagle flies on Friday” would need to be changed to “Sunday,” although the rest of it holds up well enough in the Patriots’ post-loss-week dealing with the travails of “they call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad Wednesday’s worst and Thursday’s oh so sad”**).

*Admittedly, you’ll have to listen to the original recorded version to hear those specific lyrics, but I chose this video version linked above because of its live-performance-virtuosity, reminiscent of what the underdog Eagles accomplished against the more-heavily-favored Patriots last weekend.

**I chose King’s version here because it brings back good memories of seeing him do it in person (not at Austin City Limits, though; I was long gone from Texas before 1996), but the song’s actually written by T-Bone Walker so if you’d like to hear his original, more-laid-back-approach, here it is.

 To cap all of this off, it also seems appropriate to me to feature something from the band actually called The Eagles, with "New Kid in Town" (1977 live performance, great sound but distractingly-dark-visuals) as a bit of a sarcastic tribute (especially from the Patriots' perspective) to Philadelphia’s backup quarterback, Nick Foles (who’s apparently filled in marvelously for injured Carson Wentz since mid-December; I’m not going to even try to claim I keep up with football all that much except for their equivalent of Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” every February) in that he’s not really that new (drafted by Philadelphia in 2012, had a very promising career going until a collarbone injury, traded to the St. Louis Rams in 2015, has mostly been in a backup-role ever since) but he’s certainly burst into primetime now (Super Bowl MVP, headed to Disneyworld for a big parade after the victory) with the sense thatEverybody loves you so don’t let them down,”  just as suddenly-stunned-superstar (and super-cheater, along with his coach, Bill Belichick, in the opinions of many) Tom Brady has the unconventional struggle of “You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you They will never forget you ‘til somebody new comes along” (song on the 1976 Hotel California album; in case you’ve never made it to the end of the Related Links section just below, read/skim through it to almost the end to find that album’s signature song, a regular feature of this blog along with a couple of others, giving you even more to listen to until next time we meet).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2017’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, March 4, 2018 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2017 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2017 along with the Oscar nominees for 2017 films.

Here’s more information about The Greatest Showman: (13:50 interview with actors Zac Efron, Zendaya, Hugh Jackman, Keala Settle, and director Michael Gracey [with English captions])

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.


Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 31,933; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (I’ll honestly acknowledge the hits total’s been dropping lately but at least I’m still being found on 5 continents so my continued thanks to the Two Guys readership):


  1. los movies - This is possibly one of the best films I have ever seen in this genre. From the start to finish, I felt that there was some inaudible and invisible metronome setting the overall pace of the film, a consistent rhythm within many rhythms, if that makes sense. Everything about this film had perfect timing. Editing was seamless. Attention to detail was mind blowing, costumes outstanding. Special effects... whoa. Acting was flawless. I really can't find anything to criticize. To summarize in a sentence, first class family entertainment.
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  2. Hi Megashare Movies, Sorry I’ve been so long in getting your comment published and replying to it, but there was some kind of glitch so I wasn’t even notified you’d sent it in. In the future, I’ll go into my Blogspot mailbox once a week to make sure I’m aware of any submitted comments. In this case, you're more supportive than I was about this film, glad to see you enjoyed it so much. Ken Burke


  3. Movies are the best way to see a story with the the so experienced actors nowadays
    i enjoy reading so many Noticias de Cine.

    1. Hi Urien Roen, Thanks very much for your comment. Ken Burke

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