Starting a review of the relentlessly fluffy The Greatest Showman with a topic as serious as authorial intent may be unexpected, but that’s kind of the point:
Most critics stress the unimportance of an artist’s intention when evaluating art. Though the stated intent may be helpful in understanding the origins of a work, it should by no means be treated as “the most accurate interpretation” of the end result. I surrounded that phrase with quotes because the very notion of an ACCURATE INTERPRETATION is an oxymoron in terms; art is universally subjective, and once it’s released to the world, the creator’s assessment becomes just one amongst many equally-valid voices trying to make sense of it all.
I take this concept one step further than most: I also don’t believe that audiences should evaluate a piece based on whether their reaction conforms to what they perceive to be the intended response. Take The Room, which has reentered the cultural zeitgeist this year thanks to The Disaster Artist. Did Tommy Wiseau mean for it to be one of the funniest movies of all time? Probably not…BUT WHO CARES. The Room made me laugh more than almost any other movie ever made, and that’s all that matters, thus cementing it as one of the best comedies of the 21st century.
In a way, The Greatest Showman is a musical version of The Room to me. Yes, it’s obviously a gazillion times more conventionally professional, but I’m still unsure how director Michael Gracey and his crackpot team of collaborators would feel if they witnessed me literally crying from laughter BOTH times I saw it. You’re goddamn right I watched it twice, because
A) I needed to make sure that I didn’t just dream “WITH MY EYES WIDE OPEN” such a fantastically fantastical cinematic experience. And:
B) It’s my sadness kryptonite.
As Hugh Jackman — who’s technically playing P.T. Barnum, but c’mon…Hugh Jackman is always Hugh “I project depth instead of playing depth” Jackman, which is why we love him — says in the movie (the following is paraphrased because I unfortunately don’t own it…YET. BUT I WILL AS SOON AS IT’S AVAILABLE FOR NONSTOP HOME CONSUMPTION): “They leave with smiles on their faces…who are you to judge what brought them such bliss.”
He expresses this sentiment to a naysaying, curmudgeon critic who tries to condescendingly shit on Barnum’s
parade circus. The character’s prominence in the movie seems like a self-defense mechanism on the part of the writers; they knew that most of us snobs would probably look down on The Greatest Showman, and they proactively embedded retorts in the script to this predictable phenomenon that’s subsequently come true.
And you know what, fuck us snobs! Right after I first saw the movie, I tweeted that it’s “bad by the standards of almost any conventional critical metric…but no movie this year made me as shamelessly happy.” For some reason, 21st century tastes dictate that any self-respecting surveyor of the arts cannot enjoy The Greatest Showman’s brand of…I can’t decide which of the following adjectives to use here, so I’m just going to include them all to emphasize just how hard it tries to be artificial, cheesy, sentimental, saccharine, schmaltzy, sincere, wholesome, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. Like, it can teach Oscar Wilde a thing or two or everything about the importance of being earnest.
Is it shallow? No doubt. But you know what’s not shallow? The deep reservoirs of delight to be found for us musical lovers; I legit almost blacked out from sheer joy during some of the song sequences. Much like a kid throwing silly putty at a wall in hopes that one time it’ll stick, The Greatest Showman throws every damn throwback musical trope at the audience, without discernment or discretion or, god forbid, subtlety, a word that everyone involved has never even heard of. Just because elitists declare that such obviousness must be a guilty pleasure at best doesn’t make me feel one bit guilty for loving the bejesus out of every minute.
When I’ve previously shared these thoughts basically with anyone who’s been within earshot of me since the movie came out — even randos on the streets of NYC because I ADORE THIS MOVIE SO MUCH THAT I JUST PERIODICALLY SHOUT IT TO THE ROOFTOPS “LIKE AN ANTHEM FROM MY HEART” — most ask if I’m laughing with the movie or at the movie. Once again: I. DO. NOT. CARE, because I think that’s an irrelevant question.
But I will say that the movie does deserve accolades for impressively allowing me to derive such pleasure from it. Unlike a vast majority of movie musicals that try to obscure their musicality as much as possible — because for some reason that human in-your-faceness is considered a turnoff in 2017; apparently audiences only enjoy such a lack of restraint when it’s masked by CGI explosions and caped crusaders — The Greatest Showman proudly revels in the form from the very first note. It took me a few beats to acclimate to a celluloid world that immediately turns up the singing kitsch to 11, but once onboard, I was swept away. The story briskly moves from one song to the next, each of which contains kinetic cinematography that blends sweeping musical theatre dancing with modern hip-hop (you better believe Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was an influence). The components may be familiar, but the way they’re arranged is a consistently inconsistent hodgepodge of transportive wonder.
Same goes for the actual music (and the rest of the movie, for that matter). Am I currently listening to the soundtrack while writing this? Oh you betchya. Have I been obsessively listening to it 24/7 even when I’m not writing specifically about the movie? OH YOU FUCKING BETCHYA. Unlike the rest of humanity, I was turned off by composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s claim-to-fame Dear Evan Hansen. As they also exhibit in their score for The Greatest Showman, this duo is particularly adept at crafting catchy melodies with corny lyrics. Yet unlike the off-putting self-seriousness of their Tony Award-winning smash-hit musical, their style is a much better fit when it leans into The Greatest Showman’s level of lightness.
Much like old-school showtunes that doubled as radio hits, their lyrics rarely rely on the exact contexts of their shows/movies to understand them; rather, they’re full of platitudes not specific to the story nor characters. This allows them to adopt universal resonance for audiences — thus the reason so many are emotionally overwhelmed by Dear Evan Hansen — but it also means that they can often be so on-the-nose as to be left with a broken shnoz. This recipe feels like a mismatch for the overwrought Dear Evan Hansen, but it perfectly conforms to the backwards-gaze of The Greatest Showman. The score deftly rehashes — some would say exploits — classic musical formulas that just WORK, mostly because of everyone’s (at the very least subconscious) familiarity with their historical antecedents. Yet Pasek and Paul infuse them with modern pop sensibilities that freshen up their persistently pleasurable facades.
My only fear is that The Greatest Showman may reaffirm the masses’ misconceptions regarding musicals. In recent years — thanks to the likes of work such as Dear Evan Hansen — Broadway has become home to wide variety of new approaches to the form, from the modern to the minimalist. Yet movie musicals like The Greatest Showman almost always perpetuate the notion that they’re all mindless spectacles.
BUT WHATEVER. At a time when so much art reflects the darkness of the real world outside theaters, sometimes a pure celebration of timeless entertainment is the medicine we need, possible side effects be damned.