Ever since I first saw the trailer for The Greatest Showman I knew I wanted to see it, and had a good feeling that I was going to love it. I went to see it last week, and rather than loving it, this film has me conflicted. I think I’ve now processed it enough to work out why, or at least I will have done by the end of this blog!
I’m conflicted because of how I felt straight after seeing it – I liked it, and the girl I saw it with absolutely loved it which I think made me think I must’ve done too. But then thinking more about it, I changed my mind – I actually felt a bit disappointed by the characters. One thing I did love was the songs – so I listened to the album a couple of times, and having listened, processed and thought a little more, I now I think I get the message of the film; it’s deeper than the catchy tunes and splendour of the show – and I now like it, I think. Let me explain…
Right now, we are at a point in history where equality is at the forefront of most cultural conversations in the tabloids and media – racism, gender equality, sexism etc. – and this film almost looks to join the conversation, but actually, then skirts around the edges without laying a stake in the ground. Or so it first appears…
When I first left the cinema, I was happy – loved the music, the “show” element of the film, the acting was great, the story was good. But for me the story didn’t really go beyond “good”.
PT Barnum was a real man; the film is loosely based on a true story. Which I think may be one of the reasons why the story sits uncomfortably with me in places. Seeing Hugh Jackman’s character on screen treating his crew of marginalised people as lower-class citizens and as if he is better than them is really hard to stomach, but as I say, the film isn’t about a made-up character that they can just write as a loving man, so I assume the reason he did and acted the way he did in the film is because the character is based on a real person.
The other reason the film sits uncomfortably with me is that culturally, we are now in a different place. It was particularly hard for me in places to get my head around things because of the leaps forward the current generation is making right now – speaking out and standing up against injustice and the treatment of marginalised or vulnerable people.
I’m used to Hollywood bastardizing the past with rose tinted lenses so to meet our politically correct mindset, but this film uses historical context. However, when you take the story and put it into context it actually makes a lot more sense, and kind of makes an even stronger case for equality today, because it shows how far we’ve come since then, and encourages the change to continue.
The two scenes that stood out to me were:
- At the show where Barnum is presenting the European opera singer Jenny Lind to an American audience for the first time, but won’t seat his circus crew where they can be seen in the audience. He fears that people will reject him and Lind because of the association. That’s not a fun scene to watch, but what follows is worse for me; when his circus crew – inspired from an amazing show that their very own boss has put on – then try to join Barnum in the room where he is celebrating, with all the champagne and the upper-class people, he refuses to allow them into the room.
- Zac Efron’s character Carlyle is taking his love interest of the film to the theatre for the first time, and there bumps into his parents who are horrified to see their son with a black woman. They go on to tell him he has forgotten his place in society and he needs to stop running around with the people he is associating with.
These scenes are horrible because they portray people who genuinely think they are better than someone else because of the colour of their skin or another superficial quality. But in reality, that was common place right here in the UK, and in harsher reality, it’s still going on a lot today.
That’s why it’s so horrendous. It’s so blatant in the film because of the time it was set – that was normal, but today’s racism/sexism/gender inequality is snide, hidden and often ignored or worse unnoticed by many because of it’s sly-ness. I guess that’s why most people in their day to day life think that there isn’t a problem and are shocked when stories come out like so many have over the last few years.
Back to the film – I felt let down that Barnum didn’t stick up for his crew more. He still had the attitude that he wasn’t really one of them right up to almost the end of the film, and even then, I’m still not convinced of the depth of his allegiance. But I think what does come through, in hindsight, is that it didn’t matter.
It wasn’t about how Barnum saw the people who were part of his show, or if he was one of them – it was that they found acceptance, a place to belong and a family through his actions.
You see a bit of back story for two of the people who become part of Barnum’s circus crew, and when he first meets them they are depressed, feeling unloved and hiding themselves away, seemingly ashamed of who they are and what they look like. By the time of the scene I mentioned above where the crew are banned from joining Barnum to celebrate Lind’s show, their lives are completely changed. They have confidence in who they are, they don’t care what people say or do to them, and they have each other to lean on. (see this song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjxugyZCfuw) So although the man himself may not have cared a lot about them along the way, he did provide for them this community, belonging and family.
Working through my conflicting feelings, my take away is that this is a film that celebrates every walk of life. It says we don’t care what you think, we are who we are, we like it, and it doesn’t matter to us if you don’t. I feel like that’s a general voice in the world, particularly being vocalised in Hollywood right now, which is why I think this film has been made in the way it has. It’s speaking up for the persecuted. It’s standing up for the vulnerable. Supporting one another in love.
One other thing I like, it may be mean, but I don’t think it’s a mistake, is that Barnum is so obsessed with making something of himself in society that he is the one that takes the longest, and gets more hurt along the way, in learning the lesson of the film. It’s a reminder to not get caught up in looking at those around you and comparing yourself to those who you are not like and wondering why you’re not like them or what you can do to be like them. It’s about looking at the people around you who will build you up, and who you can build up, and pouring your love into the lives of those who matter around you.
If you’re interested in more about the real PT Barnum, I found this really interesting: http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/greatest-showman/