The Britania Panopticon music hall in Glasgow’s Trongate once hosted a freak show, a roof top carnival, a waxworks and an indoor zoo during the early 1900s – a jack-of-all trades entertainment venue right in the heart of our city! It closed it’s doors to entertainment in 1938 but I’ve often wondered whether ‘freak’ would be an upsetting term for the so-called ‘freaks’. The bearded lady, the extremely tall man, extremely large child, vertically challenged person and persons with salient features. Surely the term ‘freak’ could only be derogatory and heighten any feeling of being an outcast in society at a time where anything different, unconventional or alien was thought of in the worst possible way.
Yet having watched The Greatest Showman on Monday (press viewing) we’re lead to believe that the ‘freaks’ enjoyed their ‘fame’. P T Barnum appears to be the first showman to herald the idea of ‘freak’ voyeur exhibiting the weird and wonderful and making a tidy profit. He was the Leonardo Da Vinci of the entertainment world who could turn his hand to anything.
In America from the 1830s to 1870s Barnum popularised entertainment – perhaps the modern day version would be Britains’ Got Talent and X Factor innovator Simon Cowell. And just like Cowell’s popular shows, some of the acts were staged to look authentic but it was commonplace for Barnum’s acts to be aided by smoke and mirrors. Barnum once said: “I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.” During the 1840s Barnum purchased the American Museum which had a constantly rotating ‘freak’ acts schedule drawing in around 400,000 visitors each year.
In light of this knowledge I should see the film The Greatest Showman, which follows on from the popular theatre production running since the 1980s, as tainted. It portrays all involved in the ‘freak’ show as happy to participate in such a spectacle. Barnum is portrayed as a showman and entrepreneur obsessed with proving his self worth to the world whilst heralding a new era in entertainment.
But if I take the musical film at face value, enjoy the high-energy entertainment, superb acting by Hugh Jackman (perfectly cast), Michelle Williams and Zac Efron and the incredible songs by acclaimed songwriters Benj Pasek & Justin Paul – the duo won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song for ‘City of Stars’ in La La Land – then we’re on to a winner. Pasek and Paul have revitalised the songs to add more of a dance feel to the soundtrack – think Pink and Christina Aguilera – helping to add to an edgy film with a great storyline. (loosely based on fact makes me feel altogether better about it).
This is Me sung by Keala Settle (bearded lady), Rewrite the Stars sung by Efron and Zendaya, Never Enough sung by Loren Allred and From Now On sung by Jackman have put The Greatest Showman’s place in musical film history for one of the best soundtracks ever.
It’s incredible cinematography and rich colour enhances every part of the film and the rags to riches story of Barnum played by Jackman falling in love Charity played by Williams is totally believable. Socialite Phillip played by Efron falls in love with trapezist Anne played by Zendaya but his social stance in high society and threat of being cut off from his inheritance renders the relationship almost impossible. Almost.
This highly entertaining story of love, aspirations, obsession, inclusion and hope is a winner on every front. The male guest I dragged along to the screening, who loathes musicals and would rather stick pins in his eyes, has been converted though I strongly suspect macho Hugh Jackman’s presence in the film had a large part to play.
Knock yourself out this Christmas with one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.
review by Susie Daniels
The Greatest Showman, out in cinemas on Boxing Day (Tues 26th December)