The Greatest Showman is a big, showy, heart-on-its-sleeve musical about P.T. Barnum, a man who supposedly came from nothing and conned his way into creating the Greatest Show on Earth. As played by Hugh Jackman, Barnum is dazzling. He is a singing and dancing machine with a big, dopey smile and enough charm to create a self-sustaining energy source. I completely and totally understand why Jackman has wanted to make this movie for years — it is a role perfectly tailored to his talents. Some of you may remember that international Lipton tea commercial he made a few years ago — The Greatest Showman is an hour and a half of that.
But I’m not here for the lionization of P.T. Barnum. I’m not here to fawn over a man who built his fortune by exploiting others. Even as written, the P.T. Barnum of The Greatest Showman is not a particularly compelling character. Putting aside all the abuses, exploitation, and the minstrel shows that gets papered over in The Greatest Showman, the P.T. Barnum of this film is still just another goddamn white dude who built a career on the backs of others, and is more interested in “respect” than he is in the people around him, whether it’s his circus acts, his family, or Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale” he recruited in an effort to gain legitimacy among the old-money crowd. It’s hard to muster a lot of empathy for a guy with all the money in the world who still feels slighted because the New York Herald’s art critic isn’t impressed with him.
But the major problem with The Greatest Showman is not the way it hero-worships P.T. Barnum (although, that definitely is a problem): It’s that Barnum never should’ve been the lead character in this movie in the first place. The only line separating The Greatest Showman between being a hugely problematic movie and a great one is a matter of perspective. This shouldn’t have been P.T. Barnum’s movie. This should’ve been the Bearded Lady’s movie. Or the trapeze artist’s movie. Or Tom Thumb’s movie. Those characters are amazing, and the stories they have to tell — about being pulled out from the shadows by a con man and celebrated for their uniqueness — are the only ones really worth exploring. If they’d turned HBO’s Carnivàle into a big, inspirational, life-affirming, crowd-pleasing spectacle with joyous musical numbers and insanely incredible choreography, and if they’d made P.T. Barnum the charming villain, or a supporting character with a big dopey smile, The Greatest Showman could’ve been the best musical in years, or if it not the “best,” then at least the most crowd-pleasing.
But it wouldn’t have been called The Greatest Showman. It would’ve been called The Bearded Lady and the Trapeze Artist, and it’s that movie that I fell in love with here. I mean, God Bless Zac Efron — who is actually terrific here and who will always have a job as long as Hollywood needs a good-looking white guy who can sing and dance — but why do we need the story about a rich white guy who burned bridges with his family by dating a black trapeze artist? Not when we could have a story about a black trapeze artist who fell in love with a rich white guy whose parents were ashamed of her? And why do we need another rags-to-riches story about a white guy when there’s a fucking bearded lady right in front of you with the voice of a Warrior Angel, who finds her place in the world by joining a family of people who turn their “broken parts” into assets.
There’s an amazing movie here that made me cry at least four times in 90 minutes about inclusion, about learning to celebrate our differences, about telling the bigots and small-minded pricks to go fuck themselves, and about rising above their pettiness and being unabashedly themselves. There’s a number in the middle of the movie featuring the Golden Globe nominated song “This Is Me,” as performed by Keala Settle (who plays the Bearded Lady), that may have been my favorite sequence of the year. I wanted to give it a standing ovation, but my heart had burst out of my chest and I didn’t want to accidentally step on it while jumping to my feet. I loved it so fucking much. I wanted to live in that movie about these people who had risen from the dust and found their place in the world, and it was such an unbelievably, profoundly powerful moment that I was able to forget briefly about P.T. Barnum and his bullshit.
Indeed, the group songs in this movie are incredible. Zac Efron and Zendaya have an amazing, mindblowingly choreographed duet that will pop your eyes out of their sockets, and Rebecca Ferguson — who plays Jenny Lind — sings a song (actually performed by Loren Allred) that will put helium in your soul. I loved this movie, except for all the parts about P.T. Barnum who — Hugh Jackman’s terrific performance notwithstanding — should have been reduced to a secondary role, a sideshow in his own circus. The Greatest Showman is a very troubling movie, but The Bearded and the Trapeze Artist? I’d pay to see that again.