THE GREATEST SHOWMAN: Barnum’s biggest con job is on us

There are winds in the east, a storm coming in apparently for the newly released Mary Poppins Returns, if some of the box office reports are accurate.

Forbes are saying that Rob Marshall’s sequel is being seen off quite resoundingly by the surprisingly critically acclaimed Bumblebee, and the fairly divisive Aquaman. The absence of a Star Wars this Christmas for the first time in three years has meant studios have thrown a few major blockbuster candidates into the pot, but it would have been a sure fire bet that family friendly musical Mary Poppins Returns—featuring the half-century long return of one of Disney’s most iconic characters—would rule the roost. This does not seem to be the case so far.

Yet a year ago, another musical, trailing in the wake of The Last Jedi, took audiences increasingly by storm as 2018 kicked off: The Greatest Showman.

To date, Michael Gracey’s film has made $434 million dollars at the global box office, making it the fifth most commercially successful musical of all time. All. Time. In one year. It climbed considerably at the box office on the back of word of mouth, fighting off not just The Last Jedi but other competitors with franchises behind their backs – Pitch Perfect 3 (one of my worst films of 2017) and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. There was over a 70% jump weekend on weekend as the film closed out 2017, which for an original musical, and a 19th century biopic no less, is quite remarkable.

The film collected accolades and nominations for its music, particular the song ‘This Is Me’. In the UK it became only the second album in 30 years to achieve 11 consecutive weeks at number 1. Fans over just the space of a year have started attending ‘sing along showings’ of the film. A sing along version can be watched now on streaming services alongside the traditional way to view it.

This has all been in the space of just 12 months. Can you think of any other film of this genre which has captured the public consciousness in quite the same way in recent years? Only Frozen eclipses it for reach and cultural crossover between children and adults, and that has the advantage of being Disney animation. The Greatest Showman is a live action biopic. How did this happen? And my biggest question, the one that has been rolling around in my head since I watched it a year on from when it was released… how have so many people been conned by it?

Cards on the table. I didn’t like The Greatest Showman. In fact, the more I think about it, the less it does for me. I was immediately disengaged by the ‘poppy’ anachronism of the central songs; right from the moment Hugh Jackman appears doing that low, sensual mumbling while tapping his cane, in my head I heard a voice saying “oh God…”. What followed felt like a Victorian-era Eurovision song contest (and not even a good one) with some insipid drama wedged between the factory of X-Factor produced tunes. I can see why they would engage people, of course. I am fully aware this is not my kind of music (my pop music appreciation stops roughly around the turn of the 21st century). The toe tapping ABBA tunes in the more middle aged Mamma Mia did far more for me than this. It’s probably an age thing and it’s utterly personal preference.

Moreover, The Greatest Showman deserves plaudits for elements of its production design. The world of PT Barnum is created with an eye for the fantastical, for the seasonal fairytale, but the picture captures the theatrical scope of his show with the touch of a Broadway production and the budget of a blockbuster. Jackman is impossible to dislike in anything and continues his metamorphosis into a fusion of Cary Grant and Gene Kelly. I’d watch Michelle Williams and Rebecca Ferguson in anything. There is nothing ostensibly wrong with how The Greatest Showman is, functionally, put together, and the whole thing is designed to move at a clip. Get ‘em in, keep ‘em entertained, get ‘em out singing.

All fine. All understandable. All typical from a corporate point of view.

Here’s the problem, and it’s not a new one when discussing The Greatest Showman: it is a complete whitewash of history, and shamelessly tries to sell a slice of historical, theatrical Americana as a positive message of folkloric, heroic diversity when the story of Barnum was anything but.

The Greatest Showman is a simple tale really. Poor boy falls in love with rich girl, goes after the American Dream, finds it, forgets his roots and his family, remembers them in adversity, and decides it’s all more important than fame and fortune. It’s a tale that has launched a thousand cinematic ships. It’s comfortably old-fashioned and without any level of cynicism or irony (if this had been a British biopic, he probably would have died in a debtor’s prison and been buried in a pauper’s grave). Gracey’s film is all about Barnum’s love for his picture-perfect family, and about building a family of ‘freaks’ and oddities he collects, who have been rejected by society; the Bearded Lady, the fattest man in the world, the dwarf child with a deep man’s voice etc… the kind of assemblage Tod Browning brought together in his infamous 1932 film, Freaks.

This is the story, and the message, millions of people would have taken away from The Greatest Showman. PT Barnum as charming American folk hero, saving the destitute outsiders from a life of misery. You can be part of something! You can find people just like you and make them just like family! You can almost hear writers Jenny Bicks & Bill Condon levering in the metaphorical subtext, doing their best to find in Barnum’s story some relatable tether to the modern day struggle of minority groups to find acceptance and equality. It is as insulting a message as it is false. Barnum was no champion of equality. You want to know who Barnum was?

Barnum was a man who bought a slave woman who claimed to be 161 years old and the nurse of George Washington, a woman who Barnum exhibited as a corpse after her death. Barnum was a man who said his personal aim was not to rescue poor sots from a lifetime of shame but “to put money in his own coffers.”. Barnum may even have been the man who coined the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”. He understood that he was selling tricks and hoaxes to a willing public who lacked the moral compunction to think paying money to see people like the ‘Fiji mermaid’ or ‘General Tom Thumb’ was a quite horrendous reinforcement of segregation and subjugation. Barnum was the ultimate capitalist – he profited off the poor, weak and needy for his own gain.

You won’t find that story in The Greatest Showman. You will find a story of acceptance, tolerance and understanding. A story where Zac Efron’s privileged playwright shuns his wealthy, elitist parents for the love of Zendaya’s black trapeze artist. A story where Barnum just wants to make enough money to do right by his beautiful wife and two daughters, creating an empire of entertainment, “the greatest show”, which would spark a revolution of circus theatre which exists, in some form, right through to the modern day. It is the ultimate white man capitalist fantasy, a true exemplar of the whitewash history of the American Dream, a dream usually achieved at the desperate misfortune of others.

It was interesting debating The Greatest Showman on social media with friends and colleagues in the world of writing and podcasting, all of whom I respect the opinion of. Some I agreed with, or agreed with me. Others were a world away from what I consider to be a true approximation of The Greatest Showman, but what it taught me was just how much this film divides audiences. Here are just a few examples of the kind of responses to the film, exempting names behind the quotes:

“Loved it!”

“The idea that Barnum was a champion of diversity instead of a man who ran a freakshow and swindled marks is insane.”

“Loved it. And a film that me and the granddaughters can keep watching together.”

“PT Barnum was an absolute monster. Trying to make him into a figure who is an amazing human being, even for one musical film, is a major whitewash of history.”

“Ok so what does it matter that there is no reality to it. The promotion of good will needs to happen in this day and age. The staccato style dancing is incredible. The tunes are great. Everybody needs to have a good time. yeah the critics need to diss it because it’s not a true story of Barnum and I get that. But seriously enjoy yourself. That’s the reason why this film defied the odds is because it’s enjoyable and it’s only enhanced the reason why I love it. And not only that even in the film critics dissed it I love the irony.”

“I’ve been screaming for a year about how it’s horrible disingenuous shite that reduces its misfit side-cast, whom the film supposedly wants to champion since their P.T. was ur text for Progressivism (*snorts*), to an unimportant Greek chorus for a story about a Great White Man conning everyone into his bullshit. But try telling people that and suddenly I’m a “killjoy” and security escorts me from the local ASDA because “you’re upsetting the pensioners, sir!””

The last comment is obviously quite flippant but you can see the wide range of opinion here. There are some good points to be made in the positives. The Greatest Showman is a film being enjoyed by children and teenagers, many of whom will not be looking deeper beyond the artifice. Why would they? The songs are designed for their age demographic, first and foremost – if anyone older happens to enjoy them, that’s a pleasant bonus (and many do). There seems to be a divide between those able to embrace that artifice, enjoying it purely as the entertainment Hugh Jackman and the cast provides, and those who see through it for what the film wilfully mischaracterises.

Christmas movies tend to bring out these divisions more than many, and while The Greatest Showman is not specifically a ‘Christmas film’, it was released during the holiday season, both originally in cinemas and now on streaming, and is likely to be most embraced by children and families during the holidays in the same way Frozen or Mamma Mia will be digested – embracing joy at a happy time of year. Love Actually, while not a musical, and very definitely a Christmas film, brings out similar divisions; anyone who knows me is aware my hate for that movie holds no bounds, and I certainly don’t loathe The Greatest Showman to anywhere near that degree.

What concerns me is that we give these kind of films, which are all about the presentation and surface substance, much more of a free pass than we should. Love Actually is morally bankrupt in many places, particularly concerning Andrew Lincoln’s character, who is presented as someone we should love for going around to his best mate’s house and progressing his undying love for the man’s girlfriend by admitting he’s stalked her. The Greatest Showman wants us to consider the rags to riches underdog story of PT Barnum as a heartwarming, romantic folk fantasy which suggests a level of unity and equality across class and racial divides in the mid-19th century. This is wrong.

It’s wrong because The Greatest Showman is not based on Barnum, or set in a fantasy world like our own, but it is *about* Barnum. Much as the script and story play fast and loose with chronology and any sense of drama, The Greatest Showman is a biopic. It is introducing Barnum to millions of people who do not know his story and, quite simply, it is lying to them. It is lying to them to project a facile artifice for the purposes of selling a product. In precisely the same way Barnum was exploiting those poor and needy rejects of society, The Greatest Showman is exploiting *you*. It is trying to convince you that a fantasy telling of a real life story is acceptable for the purposes of fun and entertainment. It’s not.

Like it or not, people digest history through cinema and television. How many people buying a ticket to The Greatest Showman are going to go off and read a balanced biography of Barnum which reveals the less than savoury aspects of how he built his empire? How many people are going to buy the history of this as, by and large, the way it happened? More than you might like to think. This ignorance of history, this continuing reinforcement of accepting a fantasy narrative about bleak aspects of modern American and Western history, is a major reason why we are repeating mistakes of the past. Films like The Greatest Showman are far more dangerous to our future by misrepresenting our past than you might think.

The Greatest Showman is, in theatrical terms, the equivalent of if after The Producers, Mel Brooks decided to go off and make ‘Springtime for Hitler’ without the irony. Barnum’s biggest long con isn’t on 19th century audiences, it is on *you* if you ignore what The Greatest Showman wants you to ignore.

Right. Merry Christmas. I’m off back to bedlam.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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