Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘The Greatest Showman’ would make P.T. Barnum proud—and that’s not a good thing

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(courtesy of 'the greatest showman' facebook page)

(courtesy of 'the greatest showman' facebook page)

(courtesy of 'the greatest showman' facebook page)

By Rachel Walman, Collegian Correspondent

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I did not walk into “The Greatest Showman” intending to dislike it. It’s very rare and rather exciting for a movie musical to feature well-known and successful actors, especially with an original premise and songs. “The Greatest Showman,” however, also features quite disjointed plot lines, over-extended scenes (“A Million Dreams” is an 11-minute song!) and pretty shallow characters.

A “charming” man starts a circus. If you’re not really hyped to see that—especially considering that, in real life, this particular man’s career ended in financial ruin and public disgrace—this movie is not for you. I don’t really know who it was made for. I forgot many aspects of the movie I had just seen once I left the theater, in the way the human mind pushes out the memories of traumatic events.

(graphic by Amanda Lorenzo)

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) appears as a delightful, humble, loving husband and father, simply wanting to provide a better life for his family and fulfill his childhood fantasy of living in a large home. I guess I could buy that. But why is this movie about P.T. Barnum? Given what we know about his life and his company, why would this movie exist?

It’s unfair to airbrush and remove large, problematic portions of this man’s life to triumph individualism and “the American Dream.” He’s not a kind and charming man who saw an opportunity to do good and profit from it simultaneously; he was a con-man, a swindler, and exploited those with physical deformities to perform for jeering and gawking crowds.

The songs, while original, feel like they are written to be playable on the radio; there’s nothing special about them that fits in the movie. They’re too anachronistic. They jump between feeling as though they are in fact actually moving the story along and oddly intercut in scenes that don’t necessitate a song (see: “The Other Side,” “Rewrite the Stars,” and “Tightrope”).

I suppose this all relates to the scenes within the movie itself being diegetic or non-diegetic, “taking place within the realm of the movie itself” or not. In most musicals, the song numbers themselves are non-diegetic, meaning that they are more symbolic, for the audience rather than taking place in-universe.

Unfortunately, the songs in “The Greatest Showman” jump between these two concepts, with numbers like “Never Enough” taking place completely in-universe while numbers such as “Come Alive” are more representational of an actual circus show. The back-and-forth between these two narrative styles makes for aimless misdirection.

The themes of the songs are generic and overdone, without a central theme to fall back on. “The Greatest Show” is a Fall Out Boy-sounding pop rock number. “This is Me” is early 2010s pop. “From Now On” is again, early 2010s folk rock. Like the aforementioned plot lines and diegetic choices, the music style itself has no coherent flow and thus makes for an overall confusing experience. They all feel like that one, great, last inspirational song to usher you out the theater door in high spirits; combined, they’re too overwhelming to stick or make a point.

If the plan was to make a movie that champions differences and celebrates individuals’ uniqueness, it is confusing to me why the main character of said movie—someone you’re supposed to root for and sympathize with—uses and abuses the aforementioned individuals. Barnum, at one point, shuts his performers out of a party he’s having with the upper-class members of New York society, never makes up with them, and the next time they meet, they make up with Barnum pretty quickly and easily.

I hesitate to call Barnum’s group of circus performers “the freaks,” even while Barnum himself refers to them as “strange” and “savage.” Barnum tells General Tom Thumb that “if you join my freak show circus, no one will laugh! They’ll salute and cheer!” Zendaya’s character’s problem is that she is a woman of color who might have the hots for Zac Efron’s poorly developed white show producer, whose name I already forgot. The group of performers will arbitrarily move between “don’t look at me, I’m hideous” and “I’m proud of who I am, I love myself” depending on the song that is called for, or when the audience needs some uplifting.

Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the famous Swedish opera singer, is the second most confusing aspect of this story. I understand narratively why she appears—however, the handling of her character is so poor, and I wish they had fictitiously come up with a different reason why Barnum’s wife separated from him.

Unlike Barnum, in real life, Lind was a philanthropist and left Barnum’s tour on amicable terms, uncomfortable with how much he commercialized her performances. In the movie, when Barnum meets Lind, he flirts with her somewhat harmlessly (he’s just too charismatic, damn it), and she leaves him with a public shame-inducing revenge kiss. Poor P.T. Barnum.

Stranger still—we’re going back to the music here—when Lind, a famous opera singer, sings at Barnum’s special performance, the song is a sort of pop ballad, really out of place for the scene we’re seeing, about generic wishing and wanting more from life. There’s nothing unique or interesting about the scene either. The movie stops cold and treats us to four minutes of a woman—who we just met—singing a song that sounds no different than any of the ones we’ve heard so far.

Honestly, I can’t fault the film for being passionate and ambitious. The actors and crew who put their time and effort into this movie gave it their all. The overall message of the movie, which I find to be a bland and uninspired one anyway, seems a bit lost in the uncomfortable reality that this film insists on ignoring. I hope that most of the people who see this movie know how truly removed from reality the story truly is.

Barnum himself, however, surely would have been giddy as a kid in a candy store at this adaptation of his life. As he once unabashedly wrote about himself: “my prime object has been to put money in my purse.”

Rachel Walman can be reached at [email protected].

7 Comments

7 Responses to “‘The Greatest Showman’ would make P.T. Barnum proud—and that’s not a good thing”

  1. Jo on February 8th, 2018 12:18 am

    UMass-Amherst alumna here – greetings!

    Too bad you did not feel the appeal of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, which has transcended across all ages, genders, and borders. Do check out social media reactions from around the world. You may also be interested in what Owen Gleiberman, Variety film critic, wrote about the movie’s success with audiences, despite critical negativity.
    http://variety.com/2017/film/columns/the-greatest-showman-critical-sin-its-defiantly-uncool-1202650344/

    [Reply]

  2. Nathan Redshield on February 8th, 2018 1:29 pm

    Barnum lost and made several fortunes over his long career; his spectacular failure was in the mid-1850’s and after the Jenny Lind tour. (I should admit that when in junior high in 1965 we had a textbook of four biographies including Barnum (Churchill, Helen Keller, and Albert Schweitzer were the others) so I remembered his career. He served in the CT legislature in the 1860’s and was instumental in gaining the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments. He then did several terms as mayor of Bridgeport in the 1870’s where he’s still remembered as a great man.
    The movie is hugely entertaining–and this style of music is nowhere near my favorite. Careful attention to detail is necessary in seeing it, foreshadowing, etc. It is in the nature of musicals to seem disjointed; that’s true of any theater piece, even those pieces that strictly conform to the Unities (a concept possible unknown to the younger set I won’t explain). But I’ll take a minor point: Jenny Lind’s big breakthrough song. The big aria at the beginning of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” was written for Jenny Lind to sing; it was probably in her concerts. That was in 1850–a modern audience is not likely to grasp the style. So in the movie she does a modern song, a real show stopper, it’s going through my head right now–and the audience roars. A modern audience gets the point. (A few years ago a Marie Antoinette biopic did a similar thing: Haydn’s Paris symphonies would have been 1786-cutting-edge music but an audience wouldn’t know that so they substituted Pop or something.) Oh, do read up on the real P. T. Barnum and the real 19th century sometime. Best do it outside of class. For openers, White Supremacy turns out to be a DEMOCRAT thing which is why I have never voted for a Democrat in my life.
    Oh, the movie, “The Greatest Showman”. Go see it, it’s a real work of art and a great entertainment. Yes, there are morals but they’re not sledge-hammered in in this one; pay attention to the details. Anachronisms abound; it’s a steam-punk New York City (the steam-powered El’s are about 30 years before their time as is the abuilding Brooklyn Bridge) but the movie is an achievement and worth its $84 million budget which they’ve made back while “The Post” is dying. Oh, and the real Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese (actually Chinese) Twins? They retire from show business, acquire a plantation with slaves in North Carolina, marry sisters–and in 1945 Eng’s grandson George F. Ashby is elected President of the Union Pacific Railroad!

    [Reply]

  3. Theresa on February 8th, 2018 2:37 pm

    Here’s a word of advice. If you are going to write a review about a movie that you want people to take seriously, then do some research before hand. And by that, I mean, real research. The following statement from your review, in my mind, makes you lose all credibility: “especially considering that, in real life, this particular man’s career ended in financial ruin and public disgrace.”

    P.T. Barnum’s career did not end in financial ruin and public disgrace. When he died, he was beloved in America and even abroad. He was so well respected in his town, that they even let him see his obituary before he died. A statue was built and put on display, in his honor, a couple of years after his death. The London Times, when he died, said this about him: “His name is a proverb already, and will continue to be a proverb.” People loved PT Barnum. Go read actual newspaper articles that were published at the time of his death by sources such as the NY Times. Go read even the Encyclopedia Britannica’s take on him and unbiased historical biographies that were written. Hell, he wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a bad person either and he died with a successful legacy left behind.
    The man’s net worth was $8.5 Million (in the late 1800s, which was an insane amount of money) and he invested a ton of it in housing projects for poor people, schools, and even organizations that helped prevent cruelty to animals upon his death. He owned over $1 Million in real estate at the time of his death. I repeat, his career did not end in financial ruin and he was not publicly disgraced.

    I noticed that the current media that has vilified PT Barnum is presenting revisionist history and then trying to act like The Greatest Showman is the revisionist history. Is The Greatest Showman historically accurate? Not entirely. But was it supposed to be? No! Even Hugh Jackman said in interviews that The Greatest Showman is not a biopic. Most people use their brains and don’t walk into a movie, especially a musical, expecting to get a history lesson. Since when are most musicals or comedies that are “inspired by true events” historically accurate? Was Sound of Music historically accurate? No. Was Cool Runnings historically accurate? No (it’s probably 90% made up). Did that make them any less enjoyable? No. You complain about the aspect with Jenny Lind. Did you complain about the 1980s Barnum musical on Broadway that portrayed her the same exact way, or the other old plays that have portrayed her that way simply because it serves as a more interesting plot device to many than to show what really happened? You do realize that even the excellent 1980 film, The Elephant Man, is not historically accurate, right? In reality, the real Joseph (“John”) Merrick said he was not abused or treated badly at the Circus, as depicted in the movie. By contrast, it was his biological father who abused him, yet his Circus master was portrayed as a villain in the Hollywood film. Do you have a problem with that? That movie, The Elephant Man, was actually purporting itself to be a true story (it also happens to be my favorite movie, by the way).

    I will say, despite its historical inaccuracies, The Greatest Showman is truer to the essence of the real Barnum than the articles vilifying him. Let’s just say that all the events in the movie did happen, albeit not quite the way they actually occurred in real life, nor within the time frame they occurred in real life. For example, PT Barnum did go bankrupt (and rebuild after to regain success), but not for the reason that he went bankrupt in the movie. Jenny Lind did quit the tour, but not for the reason she did in the movie. PT Barnum did decide at some point to focus on Charity and the kids, rather than his show, but not necessarily the way it happened in the movie. Barnum’s museum did burn down (for unknown reasons, although it is believed to have been because of his strong anti-slavery stance). PT Barnum did come from poverty and was indeed the son of a tailor who died while Barnum was a teen, although Charity didn’t come from wealth. I can go on and on with pretty much everything that happened in the movie. Much of it was based in some fact but then tweaked to tell a story within an hour and 45 minutes, which allowed it to use the historical inaccuracy as a plot device to get from point A to B (example, the real Barnum did have a deep problem with feeling insecure and like he wasn’t enough and did chase after wealth and fame for these reasons, and the easiest way to make this character flaw clear in a short musical was for them to make Charity come from wealth to show his tension with her parents). Despite these aspects, the movie is true to PT Barnum’s spirit and personality and even most of his values by the mid 1800s. The man was quite socially open-minded in his thinking for his time and believed that all people, whether disfigured or of a different race, were equal under God and should be treated with great respect. The people in his show loved him, even Tom Thumb and the real Bearded Lady. To say he was publicly disgraced is a lie. He was beloved even by those people today’s media claims he exploited, and they even went as far as to call him “kind.” If you need me to produce factual evidence for this, I’d be happy to do so.

    As for the rest of your complaints about the movie, I will not comment because those aspects are subjective. I personally loved all the music and editing – in fact, I loved pretty much everything about the movie. The majority of people did as well, which is evidenced by how well the film has held at the box office due to incredible word of mouth (record breaking word of mouth, actually). For that reason, I think audiences reaction to the movie speaks for itself. The movie makes people of all ages, races, religions, political views, and backgrounds feel happy, uplifted, and inspired. That is the reason it’s doing so well.

    [Reply]

  4. B. Johnson on February 8th, 2018 5:09 pm

    I try and not take seriously what critics say about films because the whole concept is for the most part very subjective (as it should be). However, I did listen to many of the negative critiques about the Greatest Showman when it first came out and I decided that I would not see it – primarily because I dislike “historical” (so-to-speak) films that are not really historically accurate. It was not long after that when my 16 year old daughter asked me to see the movie with her. I went because I love being with my children. The historical accuracy of the film was everything I expected – it was mostly fiction. But something happened while I watched the film and I suddenly thought, “P.T. Barnum would be proud.” Maybe that is not a good thing, but tell that to the people who continue to attend the film. It is setting records in its own small ways and it does not seem to be stopping. What appeared to be a flop is now a strange sensation. I left with a smile on my face and a song on my lips. (As did most people I saw leaving the theater.) Somehow it is hitting the spot for many, many people. A good, clean, over-the-top musical with a positive message… which seems odd that you call “bland” and “uninspired” – If love, acceptance and family are what you are alluding to, I am curious as to know what you think are noteworthy messages. I agree with you that this must not be taken as history. It is just a story – one that seems to be resonating across the globe.

    [Reply]

  5. Emily on February 8th, 2018 7:50 pm

    (in reference to the article ” ‘The Greatest Showman’ would make P.T. Barnum proud—and that’s not a good thing” (I don’t know how this commenting works/if it shows it at the bottom of the page or not so that’s why I included it)

    I couldn’t help but notice a lot of your points, which I agree with, were veeeeery similar to Jenny Nicholson’s points in her youtube video ” I hate The Greatest Showman more every moment”
    I mean very similar
    You even brought up how the opening number sounded like a fall out boy song
    And from there on out all of your points were things she mentioned in her video
    And you know, she uploaded her video 2 weeks ago meanwhile this article was just uploaded today sooooooo that’s a little suspicious
    So unless you’re Jenny in disguise, good choice in youtubers I guess? And if you actually don’t know her and this was all coincidental (which would be pretty funny to be honest), then I’m sure you’d like her a lot because she has the exact same opinions as you (at least about this movie)

    I don’t really know what my comment is supposed to do, make you change your article? I don’t care enough if you do and you probably don’t care enough if you do so yeah
    Honestly this comment was pretty useless wasn’t it?

    Soooo yeah, probably just wasted your time (whoops), but have a good/night/evening/morning.

    [Reply]

  6. ereand dere on February 9th, 2018 5:42 am

    Funny, there is a character in the movie just like this writer.
    Paraphrasing another commentator, the movie should come with a warning:
    “If you carry a big stick up your backside, you gonna hate it”.

    [Reply]

  7. Nona Ostrander on February 9th, 2018 4:28 pm

    I am sorry you did not care for the movie or the music! Most people except so called critics really enjoyed it! I bet actors are happy knowing that most of us just want to be entertained and happy! I found the cast and the music uplifting and most people I know saw it more then once! It was a breath of fresh air in a time when everything we see and read is negative and ugly!

    [Reply]

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