Andrew Garfield shows the world his musical theatre prowess in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, based on the engrossing and tragic life of the creator of the iconic musical Rent.
In a year that has been overcrowded with movie musicals, it can be easy to want to sigh at the arrival of another. But, if In The Heights was the movie musical for general film fans, and Annette was the one for art-house connoisseurs, then Tick…Tick…Boom! is the movie musical for the theatre kids. Directed by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and centred around the life of Rent creator Jonathan Larson, Tick…Tick…Boom! is an ode to the artistic process; a love letter to Broadway fans.
The year is 1990, and Andrew Garfield stars as Larson in the week leading up to the playwright’s 30th birthday. With the impending feeling that he is running out of time to catch his big break, Larson races to write the climatic song of his musical, but he seems to have no creative inspiration. His girlfriend is discussing taking a job in the Berkshires, his best friend has just moved into a fancy apartment complex on the East Side, and many of his friends are finding themselves victims to the AIDS crisis; but Larson barely has time to notice as his ambition consumes him.
The titular musical on which the show is based is a rock monologue that Larson debuted in 1990. The staging of this monologue forms the expository framework of the film adaptation, with the bulk of the action occurring in flashbacks (and occasionally home videos), as Garfield’s Larson narrates this week to the audience. The structure is jarring at first, but as you warm up to it, the monologue sequences serve to create an intimacy between the viewer and the protagonist—placing you straight into the theatre seat. It also works to amplify a truly brilliant band, and some goosebump-inducing vocal performances from Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens, both of whom have a stacked catalogue of musical theatre credentials. Whoever decided to have this pair sing with Garfield deserves a pay rise as well as the world’s thanks.
However, this is Garfield’s film through and through. The decision to adapt a monologue does mean that many of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped, but it’s such a rich lead performance that there is still plenty of character exploration to be done. While it is a stretch to call it Garfield’s best performance, he is as mesmerising and charismatic as ever. He is over-the-top at points, with an energetic physicality to his performance. Some may deem it camp, but it’s an accurate portrayal of your typical straight white man in theatre. What shines through in Garfield’s performance most, however, is Larson’s desperation: you truly feel that if he doesn’t make it, it might just kill him. The constant noise of the ticking that we hear throughout the film increases this sense that time is running out, but Garfield’s portrayal means that this theme would resonate even without it.
The whole film, in fact, is a lovingly structured look at the artistic process: the joys, the frustrations, the cyclical nature of it all. It shows it for what it is, even when it’s not the glitz and glamour that many presume.
Jonathan’s desire for his art to be out there is something so keenly felt, and is a feeling so deeply personal to creatives. The whole film, in fact, is a lovingly structured look at the artistic process: the joys, the frustrations, the cyclical nature of it all. It shows it for what it is, even when it’s not the glitz and glamour that many presume. Jonathan neglects his loved ones and becomes completely self-absorbed in getting his workshop perfect. He yells about how he’s running out of time, when he has friends with AIDS who are literally, running out of time. It feels tonedeaf at points, but because Jonathan’s need to succeed is so tangible, because of Garfield’s masterful performance, you can’t help but understand where he’s coming from. The revelation that the real-life Larson died before he ever saw Rent premiere on Broadway, makes you wonder if he instinctively knew that he was working on limited time.
Tick…Tick…Boom!‘s other great positive is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial direction, with the Broadway star’s flair being felt so strongly. The introduction and epilogue sequences that are told through rugged home videos as Larson’s girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) talks about his life, highlight the artist’s legacy (a theme which is key to all of Miranda’s other works). As well, there are so many nods to other musicals, including a barrage of cameos from Broadway veterans. The signs of this being his debut are present, such as a frantic editing style, and a distinct over-use of montage sequences. However, these also demonstrate the energy which Miranda has become known for. There is a clear love for Larson and his work in Miranda’s direction, and this can be felt so strongly in every frame of Tick…Tick…Boom!.
There is a scene early-on in the film, in which Larson presents his show SUPERBIA to an audience of musical-writing legends. He receives two comments: the first is that his musical style is too eclectic, and that his narrative themes and structure are all over the place; the latter, from Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford), says that actually, he knows exactly what he wants this work to be and has performed it as such. These two differing opinions could easily be used to summarise Tick…Tick…Boom! itself. It’s eclectic and high-energy, it’s reflective and melancholy, it’s self-aggrandising and narcissistic, it’s deeply relatable and universal. It’s the kind of film that will split audiences, but for those who feel it on a personal level, it may just be a masterpiece.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hand is felt strongly in this adaptation, and his frenetic touch is bound to split opinion. However, for the theatre kids and creative prodigies in the making, this film—aided by Andrew Garfield’s deeply empathetic portrayal of Larson—is bound to evoke wonder, compassion, and tears.
Words by Rehana Nurmahi
Tick…Tick…Boom! is playing now in select cinemas, and will be available on Netflix 19 November.
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