‘The Greatest Showman’ Reminds Audiences Hugh Jackman is the Real Deal

The Greatest Showman movie poster

When it comes to singing, I still consider it to the most challenging of all the performing arts. You can be a good singer technically by hitting all the notes just right, but none of it will matter if you don’t put your heart and soul into each of those notes. You can only hide behind technique for so long before the teacher makes you see that you have to be emotionally open and show the audience you are living the song and not just singing it.

I was strongly reminded of this while watching “The Greatest Showman,” the musical drama which stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the infinitely ambitious showman and entrepreneur who created the Barnum & Bailey Circus which ran for over 140 years before shutting down in 2017. Once Jackman sings his first note, it becomes abundantly clear there is no other actor who could inhabit a man who command an audience to where no one could dare take their eyes off him. The scene threatens to be overwhelmed by a rousing musical number, strong choreography and beautiful cinematography, but nothing can upstage the passion Jackman brings to the role as he dominates every filmmaking element to command the stage like no one else can.

For those of you expecting a complex look at P.T. Barnum, you will need to look elsewhere or, better yet, read a book on the man. Director Michael Gracey along with screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are not out to give us a multi-layered portrayal of a man whose success in life was beset by allegations of abuse of his circus animals among other things. Instead, they are more focused on him as a man eager to break out of the shackles of modern life so he can embrace a lifestyle some would say he is undeserving of. At the very least, you have to give the filmmakers credit for not saying this is “based on a true story,” a phrase you all know I abhor with a passion.

We watch as P.T. captures the heart and affection of Charity (Michelle Williams) from a young age even though they come from two different classes of people, P.T. from the poor and Charity from the rich. Nevertheless, their love for one another breaks through barriers, and they marry and bring two beautiful daughters into the world whom they share a powerful love of imagination and possibilities with.

The scene in which we watch P.T. Barnum work in an office and trying not to becoming completely numbed by a redundant work environment resembles the suffocating office Jonathan Pryce was an employee at in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and from there I was sucked into his quest to escape a life where, as Trent Reznor put it, every day is exactly the same. Of course, his mission in starting an adventurous life is stifled by struggles new beginnings bring about. Barnum ends up buying a museum, but it’s a constant struggle to get anyone to purchase a ticket. Then he employs a number of performers which so-called “normal” people quickly dismiss as freaks of nature. But by giving the public something different, Barnum finally succeeds in making his mark to where nothing he does can be easily ignored.

I found Barnum’s story as presented here fascinating as he tries to find acceptance in a society which pretty much banished him from the day he was born. Barnum even goes out of his way to entice famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to do a series of concerts in America in the hopes that critics who constantly bash his circus act will come to accept him as an upper-class citizen. The question is, will he leave his circus performers and business partners in the dust in the process?

The plot of “The Greatest Showman” is actually quite thin to where the narrative feels more rushed than you might expect in a movie with a running time of 105 minutes. The story of P.T. Barnum is one deserving of a complex and deeply researched screenplay, but the filmmakers here were instead determined to give us a story about a dreamer who defied the odds and led a life of adventure we all hope to live. If you can accept what they were attempting to do here, this movie will prove to be an enjoyable one, and I was willing to accept it for the movie it was trying to be.

The advertisements boast of how “The Greatest Showman” features music by the lyricists of “La La Land,” another movie dedicated to the risks dreamers take. The songs, which include “Come Alive” and “This is Me,” are rousing and will get you into a wonderfully invigorated state as you sit and take in the spectacle. Having said this, this is not the kind of musical which will remain in your mind long after you have watched it. Perhaps my standards for musicals are too high as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” remains the best movie musical Hollywood has released in years (“La La Land” is not far behind).

Aside from Jackman, the other actors acquit themselves nicely. Michelle Williams remains one of the bravest actresses, let alone actors, working today as she never hesitates to lay herself emotionally bare in a scene. Just check out her heartbreaking scene from “Manchester by the Sea” (you’ll know it when it comes up). Williams shares the screen with Jackman to where it should be no surprise she can hold her own with Jackman as their characters’ love is threatened more often than not.

Zac Efron, while I sometimes hoped he would be livelier than he was, certainly has all the right moves as Phillip Carlyle, a playwright who becomes Barnum’s business partner. Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, an acrobat whom Phillip quickly gains a strong affection for, and she makes her presence in this movie a memorable one. I also have to single out Keala Settle who portrays Lettie Lutz, a bearded lady, as her performance of the song “This is Me” proves to be a real show stopper as we root for her and her fellow freakish performers to come out of the shadows to where no one can ignore or easily dismiss them.

With “The Greatest Showman,” you have a movie musical which has flaws not hard to miss, but I was still enthralled with it even though I am not in a rush to buy the soundtrack. Much of this is due to the actors as there is no denying they put all their heart and soul into their roles. Jackman, who has already has had one heck of a year with his penultimate Wolverine performance in “Logan,” remains a powerful presence whether he is appearing on stage or screen, and even if you have issues with this motion picture, there’s no denying there are few actors like him working right now.

As I walked out of the theater, I was reminded of something Groucho Marx once said:

“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Does Barnum believe the same before this movie’s end? I leave it to you to find this out.

* * * out of * * * *

 

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: La La Land

La La Land movie poster

I cannot believe how ridiculously long it took me to watch this movie which won Best Picture for about three or four minutes at this year’s Oscars. “La La Land” is Damien Chazelle’s eagerly awaited follow-up to “Whiplash,” my favorite movie of 2014. Due to not being invited to any press screenings for it, working to pay my bills, buying Christmas presents for my family and working to pay them off as well, taking care of the rent and my overall sanity, I could never make the time to see it. They say life happens when you’re busy making plans, but I’m too busy to even make any kind of plan.

Well, I finally had the opportunity to check out “La La Land” and it is, in a word, superb. From its opening sequence all the way to the end titles, it is a wonderful homage to the movie musicals of the past, and it serves as a dedication to all the dreamers out there who dare to make their passions their livelihood and are willing to make fools of themselves in the process. Just like Akira Kurosawa once said, “In order to survive in an insane world, you have to be crazy.”

The movie starts off on a typical sunny Los Angeles day on the LA freeway of your choice with cars at a complete standstill. It could be the 110, the 105 or the 405 we are watching, but it doesn’t matter because they all turn into used car lots once rush hour hits. Next thing you know, everyone is bursting into the song “Another Day of Sun,” and it’s Chazelle’s way of showing you how exhilarating “La La Land” will be to watch. It starts off with an infectious energy, and it never loses it once the song is over.

We are introduced to Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who auditions constantly, shares an apartment with several female roommates, and works as a barista at a café located on a studio lot. She does the best she can at auditions, but some of them last only a few seconds before she is thanked for her time and escorted to the door. Soon afterward, we meet Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz musician who yearns to see this art form live on instead of being ruined by current forms which manipulate into something very artificial. Eventually, we know these two will hook up.

Like the most romantic of couples, Mia and Sebastian do not get off to the best start as she gives him the finger after he honks his car horn for an insidiously long time (I hate it when people do that) at her when she keeps him waiting on the freeway. Even after Mia walks into a jazz bar upon hearing Sebastian play an impassioned improvisational riff while being forced to play classic Christmas songs, he is quick to brush her off as he heads for the door. But the two eventually consummate their budding romance after a screening of “Rebel Without a Cause,” and from there we watch as their romance goes through exhilarating heights and emotionally draining lows.

Watching “La La Land” reminded me of how singing can be the most emotionally challenging art of all as it forces you to be open in a way we typically are not in everyday life. You can be a brilliant singer, but all the technique you bring to it won’t mean a thing if you don’t bring any real feeling to the song. When it comes to many movie musicals, they can feel emotionally manipulative or overly sentimental to where you find yourself cringing like you did when Darth Vader yelled out “nooooo” in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” But every single moment in “La La Land” feels earned as the cast makes it all feel truly genuine, and I never came out of this movie feeling like I was played like a piano. Everything in this movie felt earned, and I was enamored by everything I witnessed.

Also, Chazelle gets everything about Los Angeles down perfectly. Whether it’s the standstill traffic on the freeways, the street signs we never pay attention to until it’s too late, the incredible view of the city from the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Observatory, the single screen movie theaters or even those auditions where an assistant just has to walk into the room while you are doing your thing for the casting directors, he gets at all the things a struggling artist is forced to endure while fighting against stiff odds. This is not the kind of musical which takes place in some fantastical world, but instead in a reality we all know and understand.

Of course, to many, Los Angeles is still a fantastical place, and it certainly shows here thanks to the beautiful cinematography of Linus Sandgren. “La La Land” almost looks like something from the 1950’s with Sandgren’s use of many beautiful colors, and we get caught up in the magic this crazy city has to offer after all these years. I have lived in Los Angeles for a number of years now, and I can tell you honestly that it is not as glamorous as it is often portrayed in the media. Still, it is a place for creative minds to come up with something extraordinary, and this movie reminded me of this.

Emma Stone is simply sublime as the aspiring Mia as she captures all the heartache, joy and persistence any actor has experienced in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream. Her face is luminous and can say so much without her having to say single a word at times, and she makes you feel Mia’s every emotion as she suffers every triumph and career setback. But her biggest show-stopping moment comes when she sings the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” in which the camera stays on her for several minutes. It’s an incredibly captivating moment and makes me see why she could have won an Oscar over Isabelle Huppert who was nominated for “Elle.”

As for Ryan Gosling, he still remains a sexy son of a bitch whom the ladies swoon over every single minute of every single day, and I guess I just have to live with that. But seriously, he perfectly embodies the dreamer who is forced to compromise his passion for the sake of survival, and he communicates the aching confusion Sebastian feels as he desperately tries to rationalize his choices as a means of convincing himself that he is not selling out. Whether you think Sebastian is selling out or not, Gosling makes you sympathize with him as we come to wonder what we have done to convince ourselves of the actions we take in life.

Yes, I think “La La Land” more than lived up to the hype, and it establishes Damien Chazelle as one of the most promising film directors working today. It could have easily been a silly trifle of a musical, but Chazelle’s heart and soul shine through every frame as he pays tributes to all those who dared to dream and constantly risked failure at every turn. Like the best movies, it stays with you long after it has ended, and it takes you on a wondrous journey I feel I haven’t been on in a very, very long time.

* * * * out of * * * *