Jonathan Larson lives again in Netflix’s brilliantly beautiful 'Tick, Tick… Boom!'
I’ll get it out of the way right off the bat: Jonathan Larson has, for a very long time, been a sacred figure to me. I still remember so vividly the first time I saw RENT and how it literally changed everything for me. I was a modest fan of musicals before, but after that performance my love was solidified. And it was all because of Larson, the enigmatic composer who would never get to see his masterpiece fully realized. I can trace so many of the decisions in my life to what hearing his music for the first time awoke in my head and heart.
It’s with that context in mind that I can honestly tell you Lin Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Larson's autobiographical (and most prominent work aside from RENT) musical is not only one of the best films of the year, but maybe, just maybe, one of the best movie musicals we’ve ever seen. If that seems a little too hyperbolic, I think we can all at least agree that it has a claim to that crown.
The story is simple enough: young Jonathan Larson (an Oscar-worthy Andrew Garfield) is mere days away from the workshop for his musical Superbia which he has been writing for the last eight years. He’s hoping this workshop leads to the show being produced which will fulfill his dream and let him finally quit his job at the Moondance Diner. Cheering him on is his roommate and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus), who has given up his acting hopes for a high-paying advertising job, and Susan (Alexandra Shipp) his long-suffering but supportive girlfriend.
The true genius of the story here is the way in which Miranda frames the musical action. It’s a hurdle that many a movie musical cannot overcome. Some just have too hard a time with the suspension of disbelief for why a character is singing their thoughts all of a sudden. On a stage this isn’t an issue. On film, compelling reasons are very necessary and can make or break a movie musical critically.
In the stage version, the story is presented in the standard musical narrative way except narrated in real time directly to the audience from Jon. In the film, Miranda morphs this style by presenting the music as the real-life concert Larson performed in 1990. Thus the narrative action is still being narrated to us by Jon, but in a way that “makes sense” to the common movie-going audience. It reminds me of the way in which Rob Marshall framed all of the musical action in Chicago as happening inside Roxie’s head as opposed to simply out-of-nowhere. It helps the audience immensely in making the music make sense.
Jon is joined onstage by two other singers to help play the narrative characters. They’re played by Broadway vets Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens. This trio does so well at presenting the music in the rock concert style we immediately want to hear them do more and more. But they also still get the little bits of personality, such as during the most emotional part of the story, that reminds us these aren’t just avatars but characters in their own right.
The performances are fantastic all-around but not enough praise can be given to the leading man. Garfield has over the years steadily turned himself from bright new star to legitimate acting powerhouse. Garfield so perfectly encapsulates the manic energy and jovial persona of Larson that it truly is one of those examples of an actor completely fading into the character. And for those that wonder, yes, the kid has some serious singing chops. Larson’s music was already written for the higher register and this part in particular is a mountain vocally. A mountain that Garfield seemingly climbs with great ease. Listen to his soaring belt on the high notes of “30/90” and contrast it with the soft vulnerability of the emotional “Why” and you can see just how much of an accomplishment this performance is. If the Oscars aren’t in his future, there will be a great injustice done.
The rest of the cast is equally up to matching Garfield though. Broadway veteran Robin de Jesus lends an incredible amount of charm and humor to Larson’s best friend Michael. Vanessa Hudgens continues to build her impressive post-HSM musical career. Alexandra Shipp brings so much gravitas and heart to Susan that we can honestly see both sides of the problems in their relationship. And in perhaps the best impression of all time, Bradley Whitford so perfectly encapsulates legendary composer Stephen Sondheim you forget you’re watching an actor.
At its heart, Tick, Tick… BOOM! is a story about creating art even when the world seems like it won’t let you. Larson found so much solace in the work of Sondheim and particularly his Sunday In The Park With George which explores the exact same themes. In the stage show Jon is the main character but it’s never explicitly stated to be Larson. By stripping that veneer away, the film stops being an adaptation and becomes a living testament to Larson’s life and legacy.
Since this is a musical, it’s vital that the songs are well-done and produced to a "T." I’m happy to say that the orchestrations and performances pack all the requisite punch and perfectly broadcasts the musical mind of Larson. It really makes you sad to think of all the music this man still had to create in the world.
Miranda smartly axes a few songs from the show that are best left as Easter eggs, and in a fantastic choice, adds music from Larson’s real failed workshop of Superbia. It leads to a wonderful sense of understanding just how good Larson was at the very start of his journey and just how far ahead of his time he was. I mean, just listen to the description of the workshop he gives near the start and tell me that’s not 2020s life in a nut-shell. And if you’re not in tears by the end of the finale “Louder Than Words” then I don’t know what to tell you.
And that’s the ultimate testament of the film itself. Larson was taken from all of us too soon on the very night before RENT had its off-Broadway premiere. It was a devastating blow to the world of music. Because of this, it’s always seen as a responsibility to take on one of Larson’s two shows. You’re not just performing a musical, you’re preserving a genius’s legacy. And that is what Miranda and company have done with this film. I can’t imagine a more perfect tribute and representation of what Larson believed in most: the healing power of music, the acceptance and loving of ALL PEOPLE, living each day to the fullest, and, of course, measuring your life in love. As after seeing RENT for the first time, all I can say is; Thank you Jonathan Larson.