In Defence of The Greatest Showman

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Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman has been a hit to say the least, selling out theatres across the UK, weeks after the film hit our screens, not to mention grossing a worldwide total of $300 million. In addition to this, the soundtrack itself can be considered a stand-alone masterpiece with the now famous track ‘This is Me’ sung by Keala Settle winning a Golden Globe for ‘Best Original Song’. Despite these knockout statistics, the circulated reviews tend to be lacking in appreciation and are in some cases scathing. In our official review of the filmThe Edge said that it had “an underwhelming narrative” and “fails to meet the dizzying heights of [last]year’s musical mayhem”. On top of this, the film only scored a rather average 55% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The arguments that are found in criticism of this movie seem agreeable at first glance, but by delving deeper into the foundations of the film and its overall message, they are essentially minor details. I believe that the high majority of people who have given The Greatest Showman an average or below average review have been strongly influenced by the knowledge that this movie comes from the same people who brought us the music from the Academy Award winning La La Land. With this overshadowing the public’s judgement, comparisons are inevitable. It is undeniable that The Greatest Showman is very different to La La Land, but this should not be a reason to cast it aside as ‘not as good’ when both movies are marketed for very different audiences. The Greatest Showman was clearly aimed at families and children whereas La La Land was certainly implied for a more mature viewing. In order for a film to appeal to children, steps must be taken in order to ensure that the story taking place will be exciting enough for a child to sit through and enjoy a two hour movie.

Another argument I have seen circulating is that the soundtrack is far too cliché and does not match up to the time period of the movie’s setting. I must say, that upon watching The Greatest Showman for the first time, I was quite surprised at the character Jenny Lind – who is supposed to be based on a renowned opera singer – broke into song that was in fact, not opera. However, this just goes back to the argument on how this movie is a family movie, the sudden outburst of operatic music would have been extremely out of place and would have caused a plethora of confusion for the younger audience watching. There have been many movies set in the 19th and 20th century that have had a modern soundtrack accompanying them which have been praised for doing so, so why must we make an exception here? And with regards to the notion of the soundtrack being too ‘cheesy’ or ‘predictable’ surely this is an overstatement. The whole message the movie is promoting is one of overcoming diversity, it makes sense that the lyrics are translating to ‘follow your dreams’.

The final criticism I’ve seen is that of the relationship between Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). Some say that this was an underdeveloped subplot and to an extent, this is true. The lack of screen time for these characters was extremely limited, but that does not mean it was unjustified. The whole movie was about P.T. Barnum (loosely based on a true story) and so the film is inevitably going to concentrate its efforts on his journey. I believe that the public are annoyed at the lack of screen time given to Zendaya and Efron due to them both being high-profile actors. It is obvious that the publicity team used them both as a strong foot-forward when it came to the initial branding and marketing before the movie was released as it would attract each individual’s fanbase (being mostly children and young adults).

Whilst this film comes across as problematic to many, I recommend going into it with no expectations or former prejudice as I believe this is the main reason for it being so harshly judged and classed as a bad version of La La Land. The Greatest Showman is so much more as it tackles the issue of diversity, racism, battle of the classes, and acceptance whilst being paired with an inspiring soundtrack that both children and adults can appreciate.

The Greatest Showman (2017), directed by Michael Gracey, is distributed in the UK by 20th Century Fox, certificate PG.

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Final year English Literature student with a passion for books, sushi and George Ezra.

1 Comment

  1. avatar

    Well done as it seemed to me that the majority of critics came in with preconceived attitudes towards both the main character and the era in which he lived. Anyone reading near contemporaneous biographies of Barnum can see that he was the usual mix of bad and good and definitely a product of his time.

    The movie is a fantasy not a biography and as you have pointed out so well, the message was for the intended audience not some sociological view of history. The music other than the rather intense “This is Me” is meant to be of lighter mode. Pasek and Paul delivered on type needed to movie the story forward with truly creative lyrics, otherwise all those sing along showings just wouldn’t have worked.

    Thank you for a delightful commentary.

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