The R&B songs in Saturday Church express the suppressed yearning of its black and Latin characters, yet the songs seem to come out of nowhere given the film’s dire, if realistic, view of modern day New York gay and trans youth from broken families trying to figure out how to love themselves. These earnest songs contrast the familiar and formulaic pop music heard in The Greatest Showman, the P.T. Barnum bio-pic starring Hugh Jackman, set in the late 19th century, which converts the same self-reliant concerns into a splashy, generalized depiction of feel-good diversity.
Saturday Church has authenticity, derived from the voguing ball culture immortalized in Jenny Livingston’s 1990 doc Paris is Burning, while the song-and-dance in The Greatest Showman is as mainstream and impersonal as episodes of American Idol and The Voice, mashed up with Moulin Rouge. Both movies mean well but neither is good enough.
In Saturday Church, the struggles of displaced people whose personal identities drive them away from their families—and distance them from the spiritual and moral teachings of church-based ethnic and working-class culture are best embodied in 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain) who luckily finds acceptance in the trans subculture of New York’s West Village piers and a church-based outreach program called “Saturday Church.”
The clichés of Ulysses’ story might be too real for some, so The Greatest Showman offers a commercial alternative that adapts those issues into the cliché bourgeois pleasantries of Barnum’s heterosexual life story; it cleans-up his entrepreneurial hustling as providing a home for society’s outcasts. Gays provide the film’s supporting cast of odd-balls and sideshow freaks who became the money-making fascination of Barnum’s carnival show.
Queer filmgoers have to choose between realness and showbiz because the makers of these two films find no middle-ground. Saturday Church’s director Damon Cardasis wavers between docu-drama and movie-musical, using emotive songs he co-wrote with composer Nathan Larson. It isn’t until the end-credit sequence that Cardasis fully presents the ball culture that sustains Ulysses’ new friends and gives him a drag identity.
Michael Gracey, director of The Greatest Showman, uses the Barnum bio-pic format (his rise from peon to business titan) as a pretext for identity issues revealed through blunt statements in songs by the La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who have turned the musical genre into social therapy. The highlight is the Oscar-bound “This Is Me,” theme song of Barnum’s circus curiosities, fronted by a plus-sized, bi-racial bearded lady.
It’s hard to escape the feeling of being pandered to in either movie. While LGBTQ experience is a universal subculture, it is not always well-served in mainstream movies. Saturday Church feels personal, largely through Ulysses’s difficult adjustment to adolescence; Kain’s effeminate appearance resembles Halle Berry yet his gender and family crisis (opposed by Regina Taylor’s overly strict Aunt) were dramatized with more depth in Dee Rees’ Pariah and Ian-Patrik Polk’s Blackbird. Cardasis’ sincerity doesn’t make up for storytelling lapses and the songs, which relieve the blandness, could be richer. In The Greatest Showman, LGBTQ issues are exploited for standard-issue sentimentality that covers Barnum’s own frustration, his wife’s (Michelle Williams) dissatisfaction and the circus folks’ rebellion.
Reducing LGBTQ life to a circus metaphor is troubling, no matter how slickly and expensively it is done (even with no less than Zac Efron in dashing sideburns as the rich white kid who falls with the black trapeze artist Zendaya). Between these two films, multicultural, multi-sexual life is nothing more than the stuff of political correctness. The Sunday Church songs mimic R&B and disco while The Greatest Showman numbers rip-off Michael Jackson horn arrangements and moonwalk choreography.
Trapped within two styles of melodramatic lecturing and moralizing, these movies underestimate the depth of LGBTQ desire which is a betrayal of why gays respond to the musical genre. In the 2003 Broadway show A Year With Frog and Toad, the childlike allegory by composers Robert and Willie Reale went directly to the spiritual heart of LGBTQ aspiration, life-like prospects and dreaming. This was before sexual identity became politicized as a marketing lure more than a genuine expression of affectionate needs. (Frog and Toad’s duet “Alone” was a profound stand-out.)
Despite the emotional release and expressiveness gays know is possible in the movie musical genre, these films don’t get close enough to the characters’ romantic needs. Any future movie musicals about LGBTQ humanity should study these film’s failures—listen to the synthetic uplift of their hackneyed but well-meaning songs--and know what to avoid. Some enterprising truly daring gay filmmaker ought to bring A Year With Frog and Toad to the screen as a gift to the world.