By Nick L’Barrow
In his feature film directorial debut, celebrated musical theatre master Lin Manuel Miranda (creator of Broadway hits Hamilton and In the Heights), brings to life the semi-autobiographical story of Jonathon Larson in tick…tick…BOOM! Based on the off-Broadway musical of the same name (and created by Larson himself in the early 1990s), the opening lines state that everything we are about to witness is true… except for the bits Larson made up. This tongue-in-cheek nature of storytelling emits a consistent vibrant energy throughout the film, whether it’s in Miranda’s electric direction or Andrew Garfield’s performance of the eccentric yet heartwarming Larson.
Just days before his 30th birthday, Jonathon Larson (Garfield) is struggling to finish his latest (in a long string of attempted musicals) musical theatre show, Superbia, a dystopian-rock-opera unlike anything that has been shown on Broadway before. With a burning passion for theatre controlling every moment of his life, whether it’s straining his relationship with his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), distancing from his friends for success or his pursuit of incomparable standards set by the musical icons who came before him (and as he constantly reminds us, all who had hit-shows before they turned 30), Larson attempts to navigate the pressures of being a writer in New York and getting his work made.
The foundation of Larson’s story is told through a performance of his stage show tick…tick…BOOM! –filmed as a live performance, this narrative style feels like Larson is talking directly to the audience in an intimate form. On stage, only Larson, a few accompanying singers and a small band create this feeling that you are one of the lucky few people to be witnessing this personal story that Larson is telling, this recollection (and dramatization of his life). However, the stage-show retelling is used to guide the audience from beat-to-beat and moment-to-moment in Larson’s life, whereas most of the film is told in a more traditional movie-style. In terms of adapting a story to the silver screen, it’s hard to deny that Miranda has genuinely succeeded in capturing a stage show feel, especially one as small-scale as tick…tick…Boom. There are not many aspects of the story that feel watered down or modified to work in a film sense, and the blend between stage-show and traditional picture works in the films favor. While at times Miranda’s direction can feel too energetic for the some of the film’s quieter moments, it’s a debut film and musical adaptation (a double hander that isn’t easy to pull off) that seems to have set a strong foundation for his filmmaking career to stand on.
A third aspect of the storytelling and Miranda’s direction that will certainly win over musical theatre fans is the addition of grand musical numbers to accompany the songs within the film. In an instant and without feeling like an episode of Glee, the movie can turn larger than life, in a magical way, with these grand and surreal musical numbers. A standout includes a number called ‘Sundat’, which is set in Larson’s diner job, in which on a busy Sunday morning, his existential crisis of wanting to quit and focus on his musical hits it’s crescendo. It is a fantastic number within the film, both visually and through Garfield’s performance, with a tune that’s still playing rent free in my mind. Other fantastic numbers include the vibrant ‘30/90’ that is the film’s main theme and the emotionally hard-hitting finale of ‘Louder Than Words’, which will undoubtedly leave the audience speechless. It’s an emotionally brutal ending, with a strong emphasis on subverting the traditional underdog story. ‘Louder Than Words’ and the choice to finish this movie on the note it did is an eye-opener for anyone who has pursued success in art by telling the audience: “Sometimes, it doesn’t always go your way”.
Which brings this review to the film’s strongest aspect: Andrew Garfield’s immersive, passionate, captivating and emotionally powered performance as Jonathon Larson. In what seems like an effortless portrayal of such an enigmatic character, Garfield captures the energetic anxiety of being an artist first, and a human second. That may sound like a dig at Larson and what some may perceive as a selfish nature to put his work first, but Garfield’s performance, along with a great script, provide so much insight into his psyche and creates empathy towards Larson in a way that shows why he is such an adored icon in the musical theatre world. Even in his own words (during the show) Larson isn’t afraid to show his shortcomings and how his relentless drive for perfection affected the people he cared about. Garfield genuinely captures all elements of Larson on display incredibly well, while also having the stage presence required to draw you in to the musical elements of the movie. Supported by a just as talented cast, with the focus on Susan (Shipp), Larson’s best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesus), and a smaller role through one of the Superbia singers, Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), each differing relationship gives Garfield the tools to interact with these people in a way that showcases his acting ability and portrays Larson in an authentic way.
tick…tick…BOOM!’s only downfall for me personally, is that it feels catered to a niche audience. As someone who does not have a large investment in musical theatre (and the behind-the-scenes elements), it wasn’t a story that I could always latch on to emotionally. The characters carried my investment throughout the movie, and they were fantastic in their roles. Plus, this isn’t a criticism of the work put in by the cast and crew, and I’m sure that fans of musical theatre may regard this as one of the best films of the year. But, from a personal point of view, this doesn’t seem like a film that will stick with me much longer after I post this review. There wasn’t a part of me that wanted to find out more about Larson and the work he had done after watching his story, I felt fulfilled by what I had already seen. Writing this almost feels contradictory to the paragraphs preceding that gloat about the performances and successful adaptation of a musical to screen. And while those elements are fantastic and deserve the praise, there is something in the back of my mind that keeps reminding me that the movie didn’t win me over in the sense of wanting to see more of this style of film.
Nevertheless, Garfield and some fantastic musical numbers are the highlights of tick…tick…BOOM! Lin Manuel Miranda has taken on a haunting task in adapting a musical for his first feature film, and for the most part, has succeeded in doing so. Fans of Larson himself (and of musical theater in general) will be touched by this loving tribute to a man who’s passion for the art led to some incredible work, and his story will serve as motivation to those artists who struggled, just as he did.
Thank you to Dendy Cinemas for giving me the chance to see the movie. Head to dendy.com.au to see the list of Netflix films they will be showing in cinemas before their streaming release!
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