January 9, 2018 – Ironically, this musical, based on the life of legendary showman P.T. Barnum, was released the same year that the circus named after him, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus went out of business after 146 years of operation.
This musical is a throwback to the musicals of old, but it suffers from the same problems of many modern musicals, forgettable songs (with the exception of the Golden Globe Award-winning song “This is Me”) and a forgettable score. It does have some impressive dance numbers, though, and it does feature some performers who actually have singing and dancing talent. The story, very loosely based on fact, is also pretty solid, if somewhat conventional.
Hugh Jackman (“Logan”) plays P.T. Barnum as an adult, but there are also scenes of him as a child and as an older youth, establishing him as coming from a poor family who wanted to marry above his station. He does marry Charity Hallett (played by Michelle Williams of “Manchester by the Sea”) over the objections of her parents, in 1929. When the company he works for goes bankrupt, he uses some papers he took from the company to manufacture fake collateral to buy a building to house a wax museum.
When he doesn't sell enough tickets to his museum, he takes the advice of his daughter and turns the museum into a freak show, signing up Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) a bearded lady, Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle of “Ricki and the Flash”) an acrobat, Anne Wheeler (Zendaya of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and others who appear in a circus-like show. Soon, the money starts rolling in.
Although Barnum is financially successful, he wants some respect from society, so he signs a famous European singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson of “The Girl on the Train”) for an American tour. The tour is successful, but there are personal problems with Lind, and a scandal that threatens Barnum's marriage. Lind breaks off the tour and Barnum's museum in New York burns down at the same time. He is broke.
The message of the movie promotes family, diversity and inclusiveness. The villains are high society types and snobs, who are portrayed in the film as mercilessly elitist and racist. The interracial love affair between Barnum promoter Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron of “The Disaster Artist”) and acrobat Anne Wheeler plays the up the racism angle in the story. Neither of these two made up characters are based on actual historical characters associated with the real P.T. Barnum.
The real P.T. Barnum also made half a million dollars profit on the Jenny Lind tour. In this movie, it looks like he lost money on the tour. The newspaper scandal with Jenny Lind in the movie did not happen in real life. Nor did Mrs. Barnum move out of their house. P.T. Barnum was not from a family that was really poor.
The story of P.T. Barnum is a truly American story. There are many people like him in history, including President Donald Trump, who is an effective show business promoter, as well as a successful politician (Barnum was also a successful politician). Had this movie stuck closer to the facts, it might have served as a useful portrait of an important historical figure, and it could also reveal something about the American people as well.
Unfortunately, it fudges too much on the facts to make it a valuable portrait of P.T. Barnum, or America at large. The music is not good enough to make it a good musical, either, despite good attempts at staging, some effective dance numbers and some good performances by a talented cast. This movie rates a C.
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