How can lips sing along , when they’ve never heard the song?
How can a heart leap from one’s chest while the body rests spellbound?
How can I make this feeling last FOREVER?
You can say it all sounds crazy. You can say I’ve lost my mind, but the brightest colors just filled my head and a million dreams are keeping me awake tonight.
Ladies and gents, THIS is the movie I’ve waited for….
Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman is, quite simply, the BEST original movie musical of the past decade—and, yes, I’m counting recent films like La La Land, The Last Five Years, Frozen, Pitch Perfect, Moana and more among that list. Showman tells the story of the world-famous ringleader and founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, P.T. Barnum, as he embarks on his dream to start a business that celebrates the weird and fantastic—a subject that we learn early in the film is close to this man’s heart. It dazzles with all the glitz of Moulin Rouge!, minus the frenzied direction. Its musical numbers stir quivers, embolden sashays, and galvanize fist pumps akin to the best that Broadway has to offer. In short, it’s a downright enchanting, transcendent experience in all the ways that a movie musical should be. From the moment that old-school 20th Century Fox production logo and fanfare emblazoned the screen, I. WAS. IN.
Watching Showman, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it was helmed by one of the greats of musical cinema. Names like Stanley Donen or Vincente Minelli come to mind, or perhaps the go-to-director for most of today’s modern musicals, Adam Shankman. Rather, Showman marks the big screen directorial debut for Australian Michael Gracey, whose previous credits were primarily in visual effects… but what a debut it is! Gracey’s effects background clearly comes through on the screen, as every musical number oozes color and hemorrhages spectacle. To his credit, the end result somehow manages to feel both effortless and produced to within an inch of its life.
Unlike most musicals where you will typically get two good-to-great songs, at best, Showman packs the soundtrack with toe-tapper after toe-tapper, even the ballads. The new original music comes from the minds of Pasek and Paul, the award-winning dynamic duo behind Dear Evan Hanson and La La Land. But where those two works had songs I’d gleefully skip, all 11 songs in Showman’s repertoire cast a spell over me during my viewing that I can’t quite explain. Almost by instinct, I found myself butt dancing in my seat and singing along to every song, despite never having heard them before. How can a heart know the words to a song it’s never sung? I have no idea, but that’s the bewitching power of The Greatest Showman.
If I had to pick any standout numbers, Jackman and company’s opening number, “The Greatest Show” is a great place to start; a perfect launching pad into the movie’s three-ring aesthetic. Bookmarked by cutaways to black and white title cards reminiscent of a 1920s silent film, the roaring chorus and snare drums help propel the viewer into Barnum’s over-the-top world surrounded by an eager, raucous crowd as they wait to see the oft professed “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Zac Efron and Zendaya’s “Rewrite the Stars” is also quite sublime. It echos arrangements of something one might hear in a track from Owl City or The Fray; however, it’s the staging that makes this number so memorable. Zendaya, a trapeze artist, gracefully swirls around Efron as they profess their star-crossed desire for one another despite knowing the world would reject their relationship because of the color of their skin. The execution of their tête-à-tête plays out with such a brisk, balletic, and altogether graceful pace, you’d almost wonder if Gracey used Zendaya’s time on the set of Spider-Man: Homecoming as inspiration for his filming of “Rewrite the Stars.”
Just a few more quick mentions. “A Millions Dreams”, the song that actually got Pasek and Paul the songwriting job on Showman, charms like a sweet lullaby. The frenetic energy of “Come Alive” feels reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” And “This is Me”… well, there’s your “Best Song” Oscar bait.
The performances are solid as well. Just don’t expect this cast to receive any acting awards for this one. Nobody’s bad by any means, but compared to other performances garnering substantial attention this awards season—I’m thinking Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name, Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird, or, heck, The Greatest Showman’s own Michelle Williams for her pronounced turn as an overtaxed mother in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World—it’s unrealistic to think anyone from this cast will make the nomination cut come Oscar time. The field is simply too crowded. Besides, this film is more of a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” piece anyway; “a celebration of humanity” that takes the form of an eclectic and diverse ensemble, proves Hugh Jackman is truly the second coming of Gene Kelly, and reinforces the point that we need to seriously keep Zac Efron away from R-rated comedies for a good long while so he can play something more than shirtless eye candy for a change.
Ultimately, the best compliment I can give The Greatest Showman is that it feels like the best musical Broadway’s never made. The worst thing I can say about it is that it eventually came to an end. I’m calling it now: come Oscar time, “Best Original Song” and “Best Picture” are this film’s to lose.
My heart is soaring, and I hope it never comes down to earth again.