Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie directorial debut gives Andrew Garfield a slightly different leading role – here’s our review of a bumpy screen musical.
There might not be a personality type more ill-suited to the modern world than that of the musical theatre kid. The idea of being hyper-earnest and wearing your heart on your vocal chords is antithetical to a society built on postmodern snark and pure, unfettered cynicism for just about everything. There’s a reason that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda – who makes his long-awaited movie directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom! – is as disliked by some for serving as an avatar of that personality as he is adored by others for his virtuoso work on stage and screen.
His maiden film manages to be a love letter to the notion of the theatre kid, while also acknowledging how obnoxious and self-absorbed they can be.
The movie tells part of the life story of the late playwright and musician Jonathan Larson and is adapted from Larson’s semi-autobiographical rock monologue, first performed in 1990. It finds Larson (Andrew Garfield) living in New York City on the eve of his 30th birthday, tormented by the fact he is reaching that milestone age without having broken big on Broadway. He believes that his long-gestating rock opera Superbia will be the answer, especially as he has a workshop performance coming up and has invited Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) to come along. But as the show comes together and he becomes more obsessive, his personal life appears to crumble around him.
Garfield is an unpredictable, frenzied, live wire as Larson, exploding and fizzing through every scene as a whirlwind of manic energy. He’s a man racing through life in order to meet impossible and arbitrary deadlines, trying desperately to catch up with his own, sky-high expectations. Garfield’s wide, almost maniacal eyes and increasingly unruly hair convey the unbearable exhaustion of someone never willing to stand still for long enough to understand reality outside of his own creative bubble. He reacts to his friend Michael’s (Robin de Jesús) career in advertising as if he has signed his soul away to the Devil.
The movie has no choice but to match the frenetic pace of its protagonist, zipping and zooming through the world without taking a second’s pause. There’s a bravura commitment to Garfield’s out-there performance and the toe-tapping selection of songs keep the thing on track, even as the ramshackle plotting constantly threatens a derailment. The script by Dear Evan Hansen's Tony-winning writer Steven Levenson cuts between Larson’s monologue performance and flashback sequences with somewhat disorientating effect, rather diminishing the impact of both halves. Indeed, the 1990 setting lacks any sort of period personality, beyond the enjoyably retro computer Larson uses to write and the absence of smartphones – which the concept for Superbia eerily appears to predict.
The lack of storytelling cohesiveness is particularly a problem given the decidedly colourless palette of the New York scenes which, perhaps deliberately, portray the city as a hopeless black hole rather than an effervescent hot spot of creativity. Whether thematically intended or otherwise, the result somewhat saps the movie of the visual energy it so richly deserves and requires, with many of the best moments of spectacle coming simply from Garfield giving it both barrels from behind a piano. Those scenes, it feels, are Miranda’s wheelhouse and comfort zone. When he escapes the confines of the proscenium arch, he often seems lost behind the camera.
However, there’s a sense that few filmmakers could have captured this story and this character with the love and affection Miranda brings. The movie is an adoring portrait of the musical theatre artist, shot through with a self-aware critique of how toxic and infuriating that pursuit of creativity can be to those around the person involved. Miranda and Levenson find little for the likes of Alexandra Shipp as Larson’s girlfriend and Vanessa Hudgens as the female lead of Superbia to do but, when the focus is on Garfield, there’s no denying the raggedy, unruly momentum of the piece.
Despite its nods to the obnoxious and suffocating turmoil of the artist, Tick, Tick… Boom! is often utterly charming. Garfield’s take on Larson is as likeable as he is maddening, so determined to be considered a genius that he won’t listen when people tell him he is one. Oscar attention no doubt beckons for him in a more enjoyable and less off-putting take on the obsessive weirdness he brought to the underwhelming Under The Silver Lake. It’s also a film which understands the sheer satisfaction of the creative process at its most alchemical, when words and melodies cease to elude and simply begin to fit together – conveyed here with a neat visual flourish at a swimming pool.
But the best moment of the entire movie is not amid the sound, fury and spectacle of Broadway or the fiery crucible of the creative process. It comes in the quiet, tragic beauty of a scene in which Larson sings while alone at a piano about his lifelong friendship with Michael. The sequence provides a rare moment of quiet contemplation for both Larson and the audience in which he takes a sideways step off the hamster wheel in order to reflect and appreciate his existence. It’s intriguing for a movie with such an explosive title that it really finds its voice when it’s at its quietest.
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