Today I had the great pleasure of being able to bring 25 of our Circadium students, PSCA students and their family members to a free preview screening of The Greatest Showman.
In exchange, we were asked to do a little pre-show juggling and acrobatics in the theater, which the students happily obliged.
I have mixed feelings about the film, which I’ll detail here.
But first – definitely see the film. It’s a great dose of excitement, color, and love, what more could you want from a holiday flick? There are even well-done CGI elephants. And unless you are truly hard-hearted to pop anthems, the music will give you a rush.
The best parts of this movie:
- Showing “freaks” truly as human beings, with emotions and mistakes
- Portraying Barnum’s quest for glamour. This was really who he was, and it was hard on his family and colleagues, but also resulted in a transformation in show business.
- Some of the gorgeous cinematic choices, like the opening scene with Barnum behind the bleachers.
The worst parts of this movie:
- The plot was formulaic, and the story oversimplified. And the directors took considerable artistic license. (for example, letting all of the sideshow artists become center-ring song-and-dance stars, when in reality they were usually in display cases or even cages.)
There are a few choreographic gems, like the sequence at the bar where Barnum first persuades Carlisle to join him, and the aerial romance between Carlisle and Ann.
In the end, telling a Barnum story with pizzazz and easy digestibility feels true to the subject matter.
My biggest concern is – what will the takeaway be for the American public about circus? I worry that it’s too soon for nostalgia about the Barnum-era circus, and that this has the dangerous potential of a nail in a coffin.
Circus was also distinctly portrayed as a “low” art, seedy and disreputable.
Class is given very blunt treatment in this film. Either you were one of the privileged (wealthy, white, bigoted and heartless) or you were one of the downtrodden (who dreamed of being respected by the privileged). Opera, ballet, and theater-goers were the upper-class; circus-goers were distinctly lower-class. The moral of the story seems to be that these lower-class shows were actually great, and the snooty upper-class-people were just wrong. But there are no gray areas here, and everyone is presumed to have social climbing as his/her primary goal.
There were missed opportunities to tell a more nuanced story. For example, there is one line towards the end where an artist says that Barnum’s circus may have started out just as a money-making venture, but it gave them a home. This wasn’t explored enough – what does it mean to have a counter-culture home, can this be important and fulfilling?
Two quotes stayed with me:
“Another critic might have called your show ‘a celebration of humanity’”
“The noblest art is that of making others happy”
If the film further cements the idea that circus is a relic, this will not be good for us. On the other hand, if the story is that the circus is a place where all are welcome – that it is, in fact, the art form of the Everyman, then we are headed in a good direction.
I was really pleased to have the circus school featured as the pre-show, because it sent a good message – that while we are watching circus history, there is circus future waiting in the wings.