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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Greatest Showman, Review: Also fraudster, huckster and the King of humbug!

The Greatest Showman, Review: Also fraudster, huckster and the King of humbug!

Hollywood’s great showman Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) was a grandiose, over-the-big-top tribute to circuses, and won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Story. It was the story of the Ringling Circus and not about Phineas Taylor Barnum, who has inspired the film at hand. The Greatest Showman is about P.T. Barnum, and the reference to the film of 65 years ago is made because Ringling had a Barnum ring to it, and was last seen as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, before taking the final bow in May this year (see below). I will be surprised if this museum-circus-oddities tale grabs an Oscar, but it certainly is passable entertainment.

Actually, there is some confusion about the content, which tries to straddle several tracks and genres. It is an eleven-song musical successor to La La Land. It is also about a poor man who marries a rich lord’s daughter, his boyhood love, and later strikes rich, to come back and payback the girl’s father in his own coin. Then, it is about people with oddities in height-weight-hair-face-body, who are discovered, assembled under one roof and exhibited for an entry fee. Barnum goes on to combine the human freak menagerie show with a regular circus. The dubious genius then turns impresario to take a European opera sensation on a singing tour of America, which brings us quite close to the film’s end.

No, it is not even close to P.T. Barnum’s biography. Mr. Barnum purchased the Scudder's American Museum in 1841, later called Barnum's American Museum. The methods he used to persuade and attract visitors, not to mention his idea of parading highly exaggerated human genetic disorders like conjoint twins, earned him a reputation for notoriety. Circus operators Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup wanted to cash in on this very Barnum notoriety and persuaded P. T. to go into partnership with them. Together, they created the P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome, in 1875, a full 34 years after his first foray into showmanship, now aged 64. M/s Cooper and Bailey used to operate a circus which recorded, so they claimed, the birth of the first elephant inside the borders of America. Barnum offered to buy the elephant, but they would not sell. So, in a happy amalgam, the two parties eventually agreed to combine the two circuses as the ‘Barnum & Bailey Circus’, in 1881. P. T. Barnum died in, 1891, aged 80.

In re-telling the Barnum tale, with only the barest of truth in the foundation, writers Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Chicago, director-Dreamgirls) and Jenny Bicks (What a Girl Wants, Sex and the City TV series) have painted him as a true-blue lover-husband, and marketing genius unbound. Almost all his frauds and lies have been left out, barring the exaggerated claims he makes of his menagerie inmates’ disabilities and fake USPs, and the deceit he commits on a bank when he presents dud collaterals to collect a fortune of a loan. As for the ‘I will die without you’ husband act, Phineas married a woman 40 years his junior, almost immediately after the love of his life passed away.

A double whammy forms the progress of the on-screen happenings—rags to riches, to rags to riches. Interestingly, ‘rags’ is a most appropriate word, considering his father was a tailor and his own middle name was Taylor. Was it a good idea to make a musical on the life of such a dark figure, with him singing several of the songs? I don’t think so. Besides a few that are loosely based on real-life personalities, Bicks and Condon have created two central figures who are purely fictitious--Phillip Carlyle, a playwright, who is composite of many, including traces of Bailey, and Anne Wheeler, the coloured trapeze artiste with whom Phillip dares to fall in love. Both play important roles in pushing the story, and one trapeze song featuring the duo is rivetting. Sadly, the novelty of the assemblage wears off halfway into the film. Some comic relief is provided by a thief/pickpocket, who Barnum appoints his box-office manager.

An Australian visual effects artist, Michael Gracey makes his debut on the megaphone. Gracey was making a TV commercial for the Japanese market in 2009, when he met Hugh Jackman. Impressed with his work, Jackman sent him the ...Showman script. Gracey begins the film with the studio logo in B&W, to tell you up-front that the film is a period piece, then goes on to feast in tones of yellow, and all the other colours. I cannot help feeling that the childhood romance footage has been severely pruned at a post-production stage. Scenes featuring the adult couple as husband and wife and as parents fail to ring true.

Just when you think Tom Thumb has committed the gaffe of his lifetime by giving an indiscreet retort to the British queen, in her own palace, the expression on her face freezes, and you are in for a surprise. Nicely done. The entire Swedish singing star Jenny Lind chapter strikes a falsetto, coming to an unconvincing end. Directorially, The Greatest Showman has its moments, like the unusual edge given to the art critic’s character, the shot when Phillip holds Anne’s hand, and the chorus of freaks, led by the bearded woman, singing an assertive ‘This is me’. However, these are unfavourably counter-poised against almost all the trope-laden rich-poor encounters and stereo-typical furore over the black-white romance. James Mangold, Jackman’s man from Wolverine and Logan, was brought in post-production. He is credited as an executive producer, and could have had a hand on the final edit.

Lest we forget, Hugh Jackman was an award-winning stage-musical star, an animated penguin in Happy Feet and Valjean in Les Miserables, before joining the X-Men franchise. So, singing and acting in musical films come naturally to him. Being 48 years old places him at a disadvantage against the other singing stars, all in the 20-42 age-group. The showman is good, but not great. Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, My Week with Marilyn, Manchester by the Sea) has little to do as Charity Barnum, except keep reminding her husband that they do not need money, while also looking the other way when he gyps the bank. Zac Efron (High School, Hairspray, Neighbors) as Phillip Carlyle is an incomplete characterisation, possibly due to the amalgam it tries to be. Portrayed as high-brow and suave, his breaking into songs is at variance with the role-model.

Singing with Loren Allred’s playback, Rebecca Ferguson (Hercules, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Despite the Falling Snow) is cast as Jenny Lind. Her track is irrationally developed in the screenplay, and the trade-mark song, rendered superbly, is unnecessarily reprised. Emotional and graceful, 20 going on 21, Zendaya (Maree Stoermer Coleman) as Anne Wheeler impresses with even with the slightest of facial and head movements, not to mention the stunning rope number that glorifies her, with the help of visual effects. You might recall the singer-actress as Michelle ‘MJ’ Jones in Spiderman: Homecoming. Keala Settle from Hawaii, with Maori blood, is near perfect as Lettie Lutz, the woman with an enormous bosom, profuse beard and prominent moustache. Having worked on Broadway, she easily sings her way through the part, notably with her heartfelt ‘This is me’ number. And no, while the beard and moustache are add-ons, she did not need visual effects to enhance her femininity.

Most of Sam Humphrey’s Tom Thumb dialogue is without sync, suggesting his voice was dubbed. Be that as it may, he has the film’s one big wow moment. Yahya Mateen II as Anne’s brother W.D. has not much of a presence. An art critic who finds no happiness in Barnum’s variety of ‘showtime’, Paul Sparks (Mud, Parkland, Stealing Cars) has to maintain a stoic demeanour and attract barbs like “I have never seen you smile”. He’s as cold and deadpan as they come. Theatre actor Eric Anderson is seen as the thief turned box-office manager, garnering a couple of chuckles.

When you want to incorporate eleven songs in a 105-minute extravaganza, you cannot do much better than go to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Academy Award winning lyricists of La La Land. Most of the lyrics have uncommon rhymes but quite common phraseology. John Debney, Oscar-nominated for The Passion of the Christ, has composed the tunes, which follow similar patterns, beginnings, highs and lows and repeats. With Never Enough, the overture for Jenny Lind’s conquest of the American classical music scene, he gets to put in everything.

Whether a film should pick a real-life huckster and whitewash his misdemeanours, while picking the high points to build a mosaic of emotions, is an ethical issue that needs to be distanced from any viewing of The Greatest Showman, if you want to enjoy the movie as pure cinema. After all, Barnum died before films were born. Yet, there is no denying that P.T. Barnum was The Greatest Showman in history while holding the twin crown of King of Humbug. Can you then deny that, in showbiz, greatness of success is directly proportional to the heights of deception scaled?

Rating: ** ½


A Message from Kenneth Feld

On Sunday, May 21 (2017), Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® said its final farewell to a sold-out crowd of incredibly enthusiastic fans. The response they gave to everyone who made the show possible – performers, staff and crew – was heart-warming. Though it was difficult to say goodbye, my family and I were heartened to send off The Greatest Show On Earth® in the celebratory and positive fashion that this American treasure deserves.

We want to thank all of our fans for supporting Ringling Bros. over the years. In the fifty years that my family has been producing Ringling Bros., more than one quarter of a billion people have come to see the show, and we’ve been privileged to have been able to share the joy of Ringling Bros. with you.

We hope you enjoy this video, which captures the spirit of the performers, the excitement of the crowd, and the passion and emotion of the entire event. We believe it shows what made Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey truly The Greatest Show On Earth®.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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