Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #19 The Greatest Showman (2017)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the column that gives you, the big-hearted, God-like, independent media and dream-supporting Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron an opportunity to choose a movie I must watch, and then write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge.
I’m pleased to report that the patron who suggested today’s movie is a repeat customer. I love it when patrons re-up, both because I benefit very directly financially but also because it means I have a satisfied reader, and that always feels good.
Previous entries in this column have unsurprisingly leaned heavily towards the oddball and the obscure. I most recently wrote about Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance, a largely crowd-funded late in the game sequel to a notorious, so-bad-it’s-a-goddamn-delight-apparently 1991 direct to video cult classic about, you guessed it, a cop who was also a samurai. I’ve also scratched the nostalgia itch of generous readers by revisiting pop detritus like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Police Academy 3: Back in Training and re-examined big movies like Tropic Thunder and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind through the cultural sensitivities of our time, particularly as they relate to intentionally tasteless comedy, and the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream and Jim Carrey’s reinvention as sadness personified respectively.
What I’m saying is that I can write about any kind of movie for this column. Want to torture me by having me re-watch Sex & The City 2: Fuck Are These Awful White People Oblivious? I’m committed enough to providing for my growing family that I will happily do that in exchange for money.
The last time this generous patron suggested a movie it was Nobody’s Perfekt, a big-screen sitcom vehicle for the curious trio of football player turned comic character actor Alex Karras and stand-up comedians turned actors Robert Klein and Gabe Kaplan so obscure even I had never heard of it. For her second film she’s chosen something infinitely better known in 2017’s The Greatest Showman, a movie so deliberately out of touch with our whiz-bang, slam-dunk, MTV, Youtube, Vine Twitter Fake News world that its director and screenwriters were actually charged by the Thought Police (which is totally a real thing, by the way) with committing Art Crimes and branded with an A.C on their foreheads as punishment for committing the cinematic felony of making an old-fashioned musical biopic to entertain the nice people.
The Greatest Showman flaunts the rules in other ways as well. Not a lot of people know this, because the Fake News mainstream media is scared to report on it for fear of being labeled “politically incorrect”, but in 2016 the entire film industry signed a pact stipulating that from that moment forward, every new movie would implicitly take within the universe of The Purge franchise. Every movie. There are no exceptions. That means that even something like Paddington 2 has a subtle but very real tension derived from Paddington being all too aware that he and his family could be disemboweled by thrill-killers, Manson family-style, on the one night a year when all crimes are legal, including murder. Especially murder.
The rationale for folding every movie post-20016 into the world of The Purge is too arcane and technical to go into but fundamentally sound. So the makers of The Greatest Showman appealed directly to the Mayor of Show Business, Mayor McCheese, who also happens to be the spokes-creature-politician from McDonald’s. They were all, “Hey, man, I can, like, dig why all the movies have to take place within the universe of The Purge, but ours is different, man! It takes place in olden times, when there was singing and dancing and circuses and shit. We got to do it Old School, and The Purge would kill our vibe!”
The Mayor of Show Business was so moved by the filmmakers’ eloquence and the strength of their argument that he gave The Greatest Showman an exemption. If the movie consequently looks and feels a little different from other movie released over the past two years, that’s probably because not a single character is worrying about whether he or she will end up on the receiving end of a musket or be set on fire by deranged thrill killers on a night designed to ensure law and order for the rest of the year by allowing the populace to get out their evil, violent urges in a single, nation and culture-wide orgy of violence. That, and that alone, makes The Greatest Showman different.
The Greatest Showman might just be the least revisionist musical of all time. It’s so unrelentingly mainstream and conventional that it’s a bit of a freak show, an oddity, an anachronistic aberration. It’s so normal it can’t help but come across as totally fucked up.
Hipsters, with their wallet chains and frosted tips and love for musician Tyler the Creator scoffed at The Greatest Showman. They scoffed! But the normies, they embraced this slick, silly, exuberant exercise in old-timey entertainment with an enthusiasm that made The Greatest Showman one of the top-grossing musicals of all time, with an international gross of just under a half billion dollar despite mediocre reviews and precious few awards, aside from a few Best Song nominations and victories.
A half billion dollar box office gross would be mediocre for a new Marvel movie but it was enough to make The Greatest Showman a Black Panther-like cultural event for musical theater kids, normies and old folks who wish that they’d start making movies like they did back when they were young and they didn’t quite comprehend just how terrible the world truly is.
A retro extravaganza veritably bursting with moxie, showmanship and razzamatazz, The Greatest Showman opens with a production number welcoming audiences to the greatest show on earth, with star Hugh Jackman posing and posturing and damn near vogueing in a way that indelibly establishes that he’s not playing a mere entertainer, however legendary, but rather entertainment personified. A musical that opens with lyrics like “Oh, this is the greatest show!” can be accused of many things. Being overly shy or modest is not one of them.
We then travel back, ever so briefly, to P.T’s hardscrabble boyhood as the painfully class-conscious son of a miserable tailor whose life serves as a grim cautionary warning of what happens to people who do not chase their dreams. Young P.T falls in love with a rich girl whose wealth and status make our hero even more painfully self-conscious about his humble origins.
The Greatest Showman moves at a brisk pace that, for example, takes our young hero and his bride-to-be from childhood to adulthood and parenthood over the course of a single song/montage. Something very weird must have happened during this montage, however, causing P.T to age much more rapidly than his soul-mate, because when we’re done skipping ahead in time, Phineas is played by Hugh Jackman, an actor pushing fifty, while Charity, his wife and the mother of his beautiful daughters, is played by the thirty-eight year old Michelle Williams
Call me crazy, but if characters are supposed to be pretty much the same age, as Charity and P.T are here, then the actors playing them should at least be part of the same generation. Indeed, Jackman is closer in age to Frederic Lehne, the fifty-nine year-old actor playing his disapproving, snobbish father in law, than he is to the actress playing a character supposedly his own age.
This, needless to say, is not the only place the movie takes liberties. In the real world, P.T Barnum’s rocket ride to notoriety really kicked off when he fraudulently presented an elderly black woman named Joyce Heth as George Washington’s still-living 161-year old nurse. He later presented an African-American man as a “man-monkey” he sensitively named “WHAT IS IT?”
The Greatest Showman doesn’t acknowledge either of these central facets of Barnum’s life and career. Instead of exploring the complexities and contradictions of the real Barnum, the movie transforms him into an irresistible and irrepressible one-dimensional dreamer who heroically distracted the masses from the dreariness and drudgery of their everyday life and ushered them into a fantastic world of magic, wonder and imagination. Sure, it was all built on bullshit and lies, but when the crowds are beaming and the theaters are packed who cares?
This is not a biography so much as it is shameless hagiography that portrays its hero not as a con man but as a dreamweaver who didn’t exploit the fake and sometimes real oddities he paraded before the public in exchange for cold, hard cash so much as he uplifted and empowered the unusual entertainers in his employ by showcasing their gifts for the benefit of an admiring public.
The Greatest Showman depicts Barnum’s cabaret of living oddities less as a conventional freak show, with all of the ugly exploitation and voyeurism and de-humanization that entails, and more as a high-minded affirmation of the dignity and self-respect of the different and misunderstood that, in a neat bonus, made audiences pay Barnum cash money to have their consciousnesses raised through interacting with these beautiful illustrations of the diversity and richness of the human form.
Late in the film, when Barnum thinks he’s lost it all, the most curmudgeonly, joy and human spirit-reviling critic this side of the feverish fantasies of Ayn Rand or Donald Trump concedes that while he personally always saw Barnum’s show as loathsome humbug, a more honest, less jealousy-crazed critic would recognize in the legendary huckster’s tawdry spectacles noting less than “a celebration of humanity.”
I’ve often referred to the Gathering of the Juggalos as Insane Clown Posse’s annual festival of arts and culture. From here on out, however, I think I’m just going to refer to it as a celebration of humanity. Heck, I’m going to start thinking of this website as a celebration of humanity as well.
Barnum gives dignity and employment to folks like the Dog Boy, the Bearded Lady and the World’s Fattest Man by, um, charging people to gawk, I mean gaze admiringly, at them, but he longs for more. The king of the slobs aspires to a place at the table amongst the snobs and the fashionable people.
To that end, he forms a business alliance with classy opera singer Jenny Lind and is so busy hobnobbing with the smart set and fashionable folks that he no longer has time to kick with the carnival folk who are his true peers and contemporaries.
Handsome actor Zac Efron plays a cultured, elegant writer who sings wonderful couplets like, ““I live among the swells/and we don’t pick up peanut shells!” but before long he’s gotten into the spirit as well and these carnival folk are shaking up the entertainment world and encouraging everyone, but everyone, to follow their dreams and embrace their uniqueness.
A lot of flashy musicals take bold, strident stances against believing in yourself and following your dreams. Not The Greatest Showman. Every outsized gesture, every corny line of dialogue and even cornier lyric sends the same message: believe in yourself. Follow your dreams. Lose yourself in a world of make believe but never forget who you are and where you came from.
If this all sounds corny as fuck that’s for a good reason: it is. The Greatest Showman is corny and old-fashioned as fuck. It’s devoid of winking irony, or self-consciousness or self-awareness. It does not waste a moment thinking about how the old-fashioned movie musical can be re-imagined or re-invented or subverted because in its mind, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with old-fashioned movie musicals, only musicals that feel the need to fix something that was never broken.
I enjoyed The Greatest Showman in spite of myself because, when it comes right down to it, I love musicals, even when they’re this hokey, superficial and brazenly sentimental. The Greatest Showman isn’t quite a celebration of humanity but it is a damn good time if you’re open to its cornball charms.
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