By Nate Blake
I hate that this has to be said, but the 2017 film that impacted the industry the most wasn’t Dunkirk or Get Out or Lady Bird. Nearly a year after all of those films competed for Best Picture at the 90th Oscars, it seems clear that audiences, actors, guild members and even some critics adjusted their tastes as a result of The Greatest Showman, a surprise box office and pop culture phenomenon whose appeal has only begun to impact the industry. This is bad news if you’re someone who appreciates historical accuracy, complex characters and compelling scripts.
First, I never reviewed The Greatest Showman for this blog but I have seen it. I’ll start by saying something nice. I liked the music. The soundtrack is excellent and I’ll admit to listening to it occasionally. The rest of the film fails in every way imaginable. The dancing and choreography are phoned in, the characters are underdeveloped, the plot is rushed and there is zero effort put into making any part of it historically accurate. The film isn’t just bad, it’s offensive. Turning a man who promoted blackface minstrel shows into a loveable champion of diversity is a sure-fire turd recipe. P.T. Barnum was a flawed, shrewd and fascinating man. An anti-hero narrative or at least a more complex arc where his flaws are acknowledged would make for an interesting story. The feel good tale we get from this film wants nothing to do with anything that difficult.
The Greatest Showman received a mixed reception from critics and opened below fairly meager expectations at the box office, but word of mouth saved it and it ended up playing for 219 days in the U.S. and grossing $174 million. Its overseas numbers were even more impressive. How this success will impact the offerings from major studios in years to come is yet to be seen. It’s quite possible the film’s popularity primed audiences’ appetites for more musicals, contributing to the massive success of A Star Is Born and the as of now impressive box office staying power of Mary Poppins Returns. These films were already in production when The Greatest Showman was released, and even it followed the critically lauded La La Land, which some critics may be more inclined to credit with the current musical renaissance than a trite P.T. Barnum flick. But Damien Chazelle’s musical, though very successful in its own right (and far more loved by critics), may have arrived prematurely to deserve that credit.
La La Land was released just a little over a month after the surprise election of Donald Trump as President. That timing is important because it’s just before the largely dark, angry and overtly political titles that dominated the release schedule in 2017. Films such as Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri had been in production before the election results were in, but their success likely had something to do with boiling over anger and frustration at the incoming administration, the campaign it had run and the behavior of some of then-candidate Trump’s supporters. This anger translated into deserving wins for the aforementioned titles at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards and Oscars, just to name a few.
To be fair, there were still many angry, important, and politically aware films in 2018, particularly BlacKkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You. Early results of this award season have been different that last year’s though. The happier, more optimistic and inspiring films have been cleaning up. Even the very mainstream and successful A Star Is Born was almost completely shutout at the Golden Globes, perhaps because of its downer of an ending (but what an epic downer it is). That may be because audiences, industry insiders and even critics feel the need for some relief after 2017’s often depressing (yet in my opinion riveting) slate of Oscar contenders. In that regard, The Greatest Showman really served as the transition to 2018. Critics may have been mixed on that feel good movie, but they have been more eager (to varying degrees) to accept other enjoyable but formulaic feel good narratives such as Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody and Crazy Rich Asians. Would any of these films been potential Oscar contenders in 2017? Probably not. It’s also hard to imagine a time before this year where Bohemian Rhapsody would get a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for Best Ensemble.
Arguing that 2018 is just a weak year is hard to do considering films such as First Reformed, Leave No Trace, The Wife, If Beale Street Could Talk, First Man, Widows and Black Panther. Though all of those films have been generating awards buzz and even taking home some awards, they are facing strong competition from fare that is lighter, and often adheres strictly to a particular genre. The presence of genre films can be a good thing, especially when they are as solid as Gravity, Get Out and Black Panther. But the inclusion of mediocre genre films seems out of character, if not for the Golden Globes then for Producers Guild of America, which also nominated Bohemian Rhapsody for the top prize.
Feel good appeal aside, the other explanation for this is money. The Oscars aren’t the only awards show to shed viewers the past couple of years. The Golden Globes and the Emmys have also lost eyeballs, and the explanation each academy and association has settled on is that not enough popular movies or shows are nominated. Bohemian Rhapsody has made an impressive amount of money. Green Book hasn’t wowed at the box office, even for a film with such a low budget, but its performance is far from failure. Crazy Rich Asians, which earned deserved kudos from critics for its diverse cast, was in every other aspect a formulaic and fairly empty (but well acted) shell of summer entertainment. It made a lot of money too. Had The Greatest Showman arrived in March of 2018 instead of December 2017, it’s no stretch to think it would also be in the discussion for Best Picture. It’s Tomatometer score is not much lower than that of Bohemian Rhapsody. The 100 minute P.T. Barnum music video may have had to settle for mere song nominations last year, but had it arrived only a few weeks later, could it have not only ushered in this feel-good renaissance but been greatly rewarded for it?
The problem with some of the feel-good films that are on an awards season roll so far is that they share The Greatest Showman’s flaws. You can check out the links at the end of the article for more info on how Bohmeian Rhapsody and Green Book misrepresent the musicians at the heart of their scripts. Many of these choices were made to make the films more mainstream and or manipulative. For example, Bohemian Rhapsody gives Freddie Mercury AIDS several years before he was diagnosed with it in real-life, because apparently he and Queen’s performance at Live Aid wasn’t a moving enough way to cap off the film without making him sick too. Some have also pointed out how the film inadequately depicts Mercury’s queerness. Green Book, on the other hand, concocts a feel-good buddy narrative about racism that will make white audiences feel pretty great about the world at the expense of a very interesting black musician and his family, who have been rightfully incensed about the film ever since it was produced without the input of any of Donald Shirley’s living relatives.
It’s early in the award season. The Hollywood Foreign Press often picks winners that look dumb in hindsight (if it even takes that long). It’s also not unusual for both the Best Drama and Best Comedy winners at the Globes to lose Best Picture at the Oscars. Some, like The Martian and Up in the Air, have even lost every nomination and left the Dolby Theatre empty handed. I would love for that to happen to Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. Perhaps this awards season obsession with weak feel-good films is a fluke and will fizzle out by next fall, if not sooner. It could also just be the beginning. If a change in tastes on the part of audiences as well as the people who hand out awards is driving the phenomenon, then it’s probably going to last a while. But if guilds, critics and film associations are merely including mediocre but popular fare to appeal to a larger audience, early results say it isn’t working. The broadcast of the 76th Golden Globe Awards, complete with nominations for Black Panther, Mary Poppins Returns and Lady Gaga and wins for Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, earned ratings that were on par with or slightly below last year’s broadcast. Those numbers come despite a slate of nominees that were far more successful at the box office than last year’s contenders.
Awards shows aside, if more movies like The Greatest Showman, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody are coming, audiences may be delighted, but they will also be getting robbed. The blissful ignorance provided by these films is a poor substitute for stories that are thought provoking and maybe even ask for some self-reflection and evaluation. In more skilled, or less risk-averse hands, films about P.T. Barnum, Freddie Mercury, Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga, could be rewarding and eye opening experiences. They might have the power to change some minds, or hearts; at least those willing to listen to hard truths. But Hollywood’s re-imagining of these lives the past year has been safe and phony. It’s too bad audiences keep falling for that.
“Bohemian Rhapsody.” Rotten Tomatoes, 7 Jan. 2019, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/bohemian_rhapsody
“The Greatest Showman.” BoxOfficeMojo, 7 Jan. 2019, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=greatestshowman.htm
“The Greatest Showman.” Rotten Tomatoes, 7 Jan. 2019 https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_greatest_showman_2017
“How ‘Green Book” and the Hollywood Machine Swallowed Donald Shirley Whole.” Shadow and Act, 14 Dec. 2018. https://shadowandact.com/the-real-donald-shirley-green-book-hollywood-swallowed-whole. Accessed 7 Jan. 2019
Romano, Aja. “Bohemian Rhapsody’ loves Freddie Mercury’s Voice. It Fears His Queerness.” Vox, 6 Jan. 2019, https://www.vox.com/2018/11/16/18071460/bohemian-rhapsody-queerphobia-celluloid-closet-aids?fbclid=IwAR3PBuW38nnpof0q0zEt-4nv_VU7a-BDdZtVavSrsxkDeNAENg-kfuXRnlo. Accessed 7 Jan. 2019.
“Golden Globe Final Ratings Steady with 2018 Despite Huge NFL Lead-In.” Deadline, 7 Jan 2019, https://deadline.com/2019/01/2019-golden-globe-awards-ratings-bohemian-rhapsody-sandra-oh-andy-samberg-nbc-1202530431/. Accessed 7 Jan, 2019.