What They Say:
On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship, and the pressures of life as an artist in New York City.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Whether you are a screenplay writer, author, or musician, there is one feeling that is universal: The dread that comes from the sight of a blank page. Though we all know the feeling all too well, what undoubtedly makes the feeling worse is the visual of the cursor line blinking throughout the process. You stare at that blank page, the cursor line blinking over and over again…as “Rent” writer Jonathan Larson describes it as ‘almost like hearing a constant ticking’ in his ear. One that refused to go away and seemed to taunt him to the point of torture. The feeling of finally having something to write about almost sounded like a loud boom; where all of a sudden the words would flow out and onto the page and create life. Though it’s doubtful I will ever write something that changes the world in the same way Larson did, it’s a nice feeling knowing that some of the best out there view the writing process in the same way I do.
What’s more, I was under the impression that Larson was a gifted prodigy who wrote one successful, world-changing show in his life before dying unexpectedly the night before the big premiere. In truth, Jonathan Larson worked on several shows that would never hit the stage of Broadway. He spent eight years on a rock musical named “Superbia,” which involved aliens, robots, forbidden love…honestly, it sounded awesome from everything I see in this movie. That show would never be produced though. While producers loved the songs and the story (especially an important theater producer by the name of Steven Sondheim) they felt the show was too “high concept,” and that no one would go to Broadway to see a show about robots and such. In hindsight this is laughable; the general public decided to make “SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical” into a MAJOR hit after all!
At any rate, Larson decided to vent his frustration about the experience in a smaller show known as “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” This show could be presented on a small budget and largely involved Larson explaining the experience as a one-man show with a few backup singers. While this is all a fascinating story, it doesn’t really explain the reason for this movie’s existence or even how it came to be. There’s not a whole lot to suggest that this would have made for a particularly good cinematic experience, but for some reason current Broadway superstar Lin-Manual Miranda (“In the Heights,” “Hamilton”) dug up the score and decided to make this his directorial debut. And yes, I can hear some of my readers shouting that “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” WAS brought to stage several times after Larson’s death, so this isn’t exactly a “lost” production like Howard Ashman’s “Smile” is, but I would argue that none of these productions set the world on fire, and it’s a strange thing to look at a show with five singers and virtually no sets and decide to make THAT into a movie!
I wasn’t even sure that Miranda would want to produce something with music he didn’t personally write. Yet for some reason he was attached to this (comparatively) small production and decided that it would be his directorial debut. What’s amazing is that despite this sounding wrong on paper for every reason you can think of, Miranda visualizes the material in a way that truly required some out-of-the-box thinking. The kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes me believe Miranda himself might be a great filmmaker hiding out in the open. The movie itself does indeed keep the intimate Off-Broadway stage as a framing device, yet Miranda uses clever editing to go back-and-forth between the stage production as well as Larson’s “memories” oh what happened. There is a particularly effective musical number where Larson sings a funny duet with a girl about a fight he had with his real-life girlfriend. The song is funny and chipper, yet the memory is tense and frustrating.
You see Larson basically taking one of the worst nights of his life and turning it into entertainment for an audience who is unaware of the severity of the situation behind the song. It’s a scene that brilliantly captures the writing process, the real-life events, and almost the tragedy behind the person who looks at his own life to bring out the art we all enjoy so much. What’s more, Miranda pulls off the trick so effortlessly that I wonder if the average person watching it will even realize what he did? Helping the illusion is Andrew Garfield as Larson himself. With his singling abilities, energy throughout, and some great emotional moments during the quiet, personal scenes, Garfield easily makes Larson feel like the center of the universe! You could almost understand why the real Larson would lose sight of the fact that the world didn’t revolve around him.
What may put some people off on the movie is how little “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” pays attention to Larson’s far more successful (and culturally important) “Rent.” This is, of course, by design. “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” was a personal show that Miranda wanted to make into an intimate movie experience. Keeping “Rent” largely out of the movie is not only more faithful to the source material, it also allows us to really relate to Larson as a middle-aged man who wasn’t looking to be anything special by the world around him. He was just another waiter who had big dreams. Yet that waiter with dreams also had friends. He had ambitions. He had a girlfriend who he loved but didn’t know how to make things work out. That’s what this movie is really about and what the audience will ultimately find themselves connecting to on an emotional level. If someone wants to explore the history of “Rent” down the line in another movie, I’d also be perfectly fine with that, but keeping it at arm’s length here was a wise artistic decision.
What is more troubling is the movie’s distributor: Netflix. I have made no secret on this site and my various blogs that Netflix’s model of dumping their movies on their subscription service cheapens film. Movies like “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” perfectly illustrate this point as this is a movie that could easily have the audience standing up and applauding at the end (and, in fact, several people DID clap in joy several times at the screening I attended). That it will be viewed primarily in living rooms (and mostly by people who the algorithm deems worthy of viewing it) seems about as tragic as Larson never getting to turn “Superbia” into a Broadway show itself. On the other hand, Netflix has the cash, a director who clearly respects Larson’s work, and a renewed interest in material that barely left the Macintosh of a starving artist in his New York apartment. If there is a pulse to be found in “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” it MAY be enough to bring this unpublished story of love and robots to life?! It’s the kind of Hollywood ending audiences would love to see…delivered straight into their living rooms!
Streamed By: Netflix