By Preston Wilder
Humans pride ourselves on being able to speak, the thing that separates us from the animals (sorry parrots), but we don’t give ourselves enough credit for being able to sing. “The noblest art is that of making others happy,” goes the final caption in The Greatest Showman – a quote by Phineas T. Barnum, played in the film by Hugh Jackman – and nothing says ‘happiness’ like a blast of song and dance, characters unable to contain themselves and launching into musical shorthand. As Barnum says (or sings) in the opening lines of this musical biography: “Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for!”.
“Mind you, I wouldn’t call it Art,” adds a sour-faced critic later on – and he’s right, The Greatest Showman isn’t Art, it’s a jaunty trifle with unmemorable songs and a shallow relationship to the life of the 19th-century circus pioneer. Then again, even that critic is seduced (or at least amused) by Barnum’s enthusiasm, not to mention his genius for giving the public what they want – the only slight caveat, by modern standards, being that part of what they wanted in the mid-1800s was to gawp at midgets, bearded ladies and other quote-unquote ‘freaks’, not unlike the mutants in Jackman’s X-Men franchise.
Is it exploitation? The film wrestles vaguely with that dilemma, even giving the circus performers their own song (“I won’t let them break us down to dust / I know that there’s a place for us”), but never quite squares the circle. “They’re laughing anyway, kid, so you might as well get paid!” chuckles Barnum when his star attraction General Tom Thumb (25 inches tall) says he doesn’t want to go onstage because people will laugh at him – a clearly inappropriate response which our hero immediately withdraws, but it simmers in the background, not least because Barnum isn’t the most sensitive fellow. He’s a hustler, a marketing man – and, as the film tacitly admits, the epitome of American capitalism. “I want it five times bigger, and I want it everywhere!” he exults, speaking of the poster advertising Barnum’s (yes) American Museum.
“Everything you’re selling is fake,” charges that same sour-faced critic, fleetingly making you think of that other ‘Prince of Humbug’ currently in the White House – but The Greatest Showman isn’t likely to take that bait, seeking only to make people happy. Jackman’s age is showing, but his exuberance carries the day; Zac Efron is his sidekick (they get a musical number together) while Michelle Williams plays Mrs. Barnum (she also gets a musical number). The film coasts on a cloud of music – albeit not very good music – and a kind of knowing, cheesy-movie artifice that’s foolish but likeable. Barnum comes back from his US tour just as his circus catches fire (he’s literally stepping off the train when someone rushes by shouting about a fire at the circus!). Later, when things go wrong, he loses the circus, loses his wife and finds out he’s being evicted, all in quick succession – so he repairs to a bar, then the door opens and the circus performers walk in, standing behind him. An empty room and two dozen bodies, lined up like a chorus line: could this be the set-up for a musical number? It could!
More song and dance in Pitch Perfect 3, a film that opens with the Universal Studios theme being sung a cappella and takes it from there. The Bellas are back, though not initially: the band has folded, leaving the girls in some less-than-fulfilling jobs – Amy (Rebel Wilson) sings in a nightclub as ‘Fat Amy Winehouse’ – but they reunite for one last gig, this time on a USO tour singing to the troops and competing against bands who use actual instruments. These include a rocking trio called Evermoist, its members named Charity, Calamity and Serenity; “If I joined your band, I could be ‘Obesity’,” quips Amy, then riffs on the name of the band: “My grandma’s in a band right now: it’s called Nevermoist”.
Wilson, unsurprisingly, gets the most risqué gags here – though she also gets a silly plot involving her villainous dad (John Lithgow) which stops the film dead in the second half. The real assets are Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, doing an acerbic Statler-and-Waldorf routine, plus Anna Kendrick – a superb actress who also happens to sing – and Hailee Steinfeld, though her role as the thick young newbie doesn’t seem to fit her expressive intelligence. Pitch Perfect 3 comes with all kinds of quibbles. The plotting is ragged, the cute meta touches (“Is there a competition? There should always be a competition!”) seem desperate, the talk of “family” is overdone, even the Bellas’ voices sound auto-tuned – but at least they sing, in between the estrogen-fuelled bonding, from ‘Toxic’ on a yacht off the south of France to ‘Cheap Thrills’ for the troops (“lost in a sea of seamen”) in matching red-and-white striped tops. It’s silly, but it makes people happy.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN***
DIRECTED BY Michael Gracey
STARRING Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams
US 2017 105 mins
PITCH PERFECT 3 **
DIRECTED BY Trish Sie
STARRING Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld
US 2017 93 mins