Reel Dad: The mystery of The Greatest Showman

 

Of the movie mysteries of the new year, the box office success of The Greatest Showman may top the list. For weeks this look at the show business beginnings of P.T. Barnum has attracted audiences despite mediocre reviews and minimal Oscar attention. What attracts audiences to this song and dance extravaganza?

The life of Barnum is ideal for a musical. In the 1980s, the story was the basis for a successful stage production, simply titled Barnum. That show boasted a tuneful score by Cy Coleman — the composer of Sweet Charity and City of Angels — and launched the career of Glenn Close who won a Tony nomination for her performance as Barnum’s wife.

That’s not the musical we get with The Greatest Showman. Instead of Michael Stewart’s insightful narrative in the original, we get movie mishmash from Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. And instead of Coleman’s hummable score, we get a collection of synthetic contemporary tunes from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the team who wrote lyrics for last year’s La La Land. The result is a disappointing collection of movie moments that fail to come together as a coherent film. Visually, Showman races at breakneck speed, swiftly summarizing the humble beginnings of Barnum, a tailor’s son, who falls in love with a rich man’s daughter at an early age. Through a musical montage, we see the years pass, the young couple marry, and quickly dance on a rooftop in a sequence lifted out West Side Story.

There’s a lot in Showman that seems to come from other musicals. We relive the rousing marches of The Music Man to celebrate Barnum’s success with his first circus as well as the buddy ballads from High Society to introduce his business partner, played by Zac Efron. From La La Land, we revisit the sensibility of a musical heroine, essayed by a singing Michelle Williams, too smart to be outwitted by her ambitious life partner. But with all the borrowing there’s little time for anything fresh. Instead we get a period musical — presumably set in the early 1900s — out of sync with its contemporary sounds and pleas for inclusion. And holding it together is an ambitious turn from Hugh Jackman, a bona fide musical comedy star from the London and Broadway stage.

Jackman’s show business act can work on film, too, as he demonstrated with his Oscar-nominated performance in Les Miserables. But that movie gave him a character to play. Showman only gives him scattered introductions and transitions that suggest a role. Jackman must, instead, rely on his engaging personality, and formidable song and dance talents, to create a star turn in a film that doesn’t make much room for the star.

So why is Showman a hit? Is it the novelty of seeing Jackman, best known as Wolverine, in a top hat and tails? Or do audiences want more musicals? Of all the types of movie entertainment, song and dance films survive the most highs and lows. And Showman is a hit. If its success sustains a new musical surge, let’s hope the upcoming entries remember the fundamentals. Musicals aren’t just about songs and dances. They need characters who express themselves to music. When making a musical, it’s best to develop the people first, and then write the tunes.

Film Nutritional Value: The Greatest Showman

  • Content: Medium. Screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon borrow from Hollywood’s library of musical movie moments to create a visually stunning production supposedly about P.T. Barnum.
  • Entertainment: Medium. Thanks to Hugh Jackman’s song and dance skills and a lavish production, the movie looks and sounds better than what it actually delivers.
  • Message: Medium. There’s not much substance in this cinema confection that reveals less about its hero than the Tony-winning Broadway musical version of the 1980s.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to watch any movie with the family is always relevant. And this one is family friendly.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While you won’t likely find yourself talking about the story, or the characters, the film’s visuals will give you something to talk about.

The Greatest Showman runs 1 hour, 45 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including a brawl. After a successful run in theaters — where it still plays — the film is now available to stream online, watch on DVD or order On Demand. Three Popcorn Buckets.

 

La La Land makes us sing

We need movies like La La Land.

If The Greatest Showman makes us wonder what makes a musical work on screen, La La Land makes us want to start singing and dancing.

No matter what you may feel or fear, this original musical will inspire you to embrace a brighter tomorrow. Just as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers helped a nation survive the Great Depression in the 1930s, an evening with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone may be the ticket to restore your belief in the joys to experience today. La La Land is more than a movie. It’s a reason to wake up in the morning.

Now, for people who love musicals, La La Land is not your standard order tuner. While most song and dance movies showcase big numbers in big adaptations of big Broadway hits, this is a small movie with big dreams. It’s softer, quieter, slower, with songs and dances that naturally emerge from the story and the characters. And this makes La La Land a delight for people who savor creativity at the movies. The movie doesn’t simply play. It floats.

Director Damien Chazelle, who dazzled with Whiplash, launches this musical journey with an opening sequence that captivates, excites and makes us want more. Who could imagine a crowded Los Angeles freeway as the backdrop for the most thrilling opening number since Julie Andrews discovered the hills were alive? From the moment the first honk initiates the fun, Chazelle’s opener reveals everything we need to know. We meet Emma Stone’s captivating actress, Ryan Gosling’s brooding musician, and the city of lights that frames their dreams. And we can’t wait for what happens next.

For the next two hours, Chazelle delights with every possible musical moment a movie could welcome. Gosling and Stone, reaching for their inner Fred and Ginger, express attraction, love and disappointment. Like Mickey and Judy, they search for professional success in a world that can be unkind, use song to articulate their hopes and values, and discover dancing to reveal their desires. As we find ourselves dazzled by how they handle those musical chores – and, yes, they can sing and dance – we are captivated by the emotional depth of their work, especially in a musical. Gosling makes his brooding musician into a captivating dreamer while Stone simply dazzles as she reveals what a star she will be.

As with the best musicals, La La Land creates its own world. Every moment is carefully planned without waste. As screenwriter, Chazelle lets the story fill enough space to explain the context and characters without permitting it to overwhelm the entertainment. As director, he uses every part of the movie language to create a film that honors its past by creating something new to add to the evolution of the movie musical. And he makes it all look effortless.

As special as La La Land may be for everyone, musical movie buffs will have a field day spotting the moments that celebrate such past musicals as Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face and The Bandwagon. By reminding us how much we love musicals, and showing us what a musical can be, Damien Chazelle honors legacy as he inaugurates a bright musical future that will survive movies like The Greatest Showman.

La La Land is rated PG-13 for “some language.” The film runs 2 hours and 8 minutes. It is available for online streaming, On Demand and on DVD.

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