Magic Of the Musical
In the 21st century, movies don’t tend to hit cinemas and then grow stronger. Usually, a film is released as hype and marketing reaches its peak and is shown on as many screens as a cinema chain sees fit. And then it tails off.
Sometimes that viewing frenzy will last for a couple of weeks (think Star Wars) before dissipating, and other times it will stop dead after a disastrous first week and poor word-ofmouth (last year’s The Mummy is a good example).
But nowadays it’s relatively uncommon for a movie to start quietly and build and build. Which makes The Greatest Showman something quite special.
The musical movie about P.T. Barnum, starring Hugh Jackman, was released at the end of December, and didn’t set the world alight. However, at this point the film is the fifth “leggiest” in 25 years. That means, its week-on-week growth is only matched by films such as Forrest Gump, Titanic and Chicago. If it continues like this, it’ll overtake La La Land, without anything like the kind of press attention and unctuous fawning that film received. The Greatest Showman’s box office performance runs contrary to all accepted wisdom: it’s an original story, it can’t be franchised, there’s no built-in audience to speak of, it doesn’t feature any superheroes, and – to top it all off – it’s a musical. What’s going on?
Two things: word-of-mouth and repeat viewings.
I’ll use myself as a case study. I finally got round to watching The Greatest Showman last week, after putting it off for a month.
It’s a great example of a cinema movie: it’s big, bright, loud and overblown; exactly the kind of thing that shines on the big screen. It’s a spectacle, with an old-fashioned grandeur missing from most modern musicals. I’ve made no secret of the fact one of my favourite movies is Moulin Rouge, so I went into The Greatest Showman predisposed to like it.
That said, the trailers sucked and the stories of the firsttime director Michael Gracey having to be bailed out by James Mangold meant I had misgivings and wasn’t expecting to be blown away.
But I was. And since then, I’ve spent a lot of time telling other people about it and encouraging them to see it (word-of-mouth) and it’s the first film in a very, very long time that I hope to watch on the bigscreen again (repeated viewings). So what is it about the film that drives the organic marketing and self-perpetuating audiences? Fittingly for a film about the circus, I think the key is balance. Despite thematically being about acceptance and fitting in, the film isn’t preachy. P.T. Barnum has been reinvented as some great, caring, sharing champion of misfits and minorities (he most certainly wasn’t), and in the current climate there would be a serious temptation for the writers and director to use it to push a political viewpoint, but thankfully they resisted. However, for those who want to find a deeper message to hang their identity on, it serves that need. For the rest of us, it doesn’t. The film is almost surgical in the way it doesn’t rub anyone up the wrong way. Then there’s the soundtrack. It was largely written by the same duo who wrote the songs for La La Land, and it offers a strange hybrid of showtunes and glossy pop. Some songs sound like Harvey Schmidt, others sound like Katy Perry. It’s a weird combo for sure, but it means it makes an impact across the generations.
It’s the first film in a long time that genuinely aims at a family audience (no sex, no bad language) but offers an honest dose of spectacle to achieve its aims, rather than explosions and celebrity cameos.
Even in this age where most projects live or die based on marketing budgets and how generous journalists decide to be, it’s heartening to see a film like The Greatest Showman not only surviving, but thriving on its own terms.
hugh Jackman as P.t. Barnum in the greatest showman