By Megan Cooper
‘Tick, tick…Boom!‘ brims with the urgency and frenetic energy of the man it depicts, a man only at the beginnings of discovering his genius, but simultaneously running out of time: Jonathan Larson.
With this in mind, the film opens with the soundtrack’s stand-out hit and catchiest tune ‘30/90’; that is, it bolts, sprints and leaps out of the gates. Narratively framed by the staged concert of Jonathan Larson’s eponymous rock monologue, the film gives us a snapshot of his life in the lead up to his 30th birthday as he tries to write the missing song for his dystopian musical Superbia.
As a first-time director, Lin-Manuel Miranda throws everything at this film, and it doesn’t all work. But, somehow, it doesn’t really matter. The film exudes the essence of Larson’s life, both deeply understanding and empathising with the process of an artist, and the meaning of any art that they produce. Judith Light as Larson’s largely uninterested agent says it best: “You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey.”
Miranda’s enthusiasm, his ‘on and on’ energy is second to none. His aspect ratio changes, use of dissolves, match-cuts, black and white, slow motion, you name it, all speak to an artist’s frustration and desire to create. He throws all this and more “against the wall […] hoping against hope that eventually, something sticks.” And most of it does, in the best and most rewarding ways, such as in the build-up to, and including, the climactic number ‘Why’. But it is when he as director is content with slipping into the background, when he lets the stellar performance of Andrew Garfield, the soundtrack, and the script guide him – that the film most succeeds. When the film does, indeed, remember to get close to the small details of the man, and not get caught up in the same genius that pushes those around him away, the film delivers sucker-punches of tragedy and heartache.
Andrew Garfield, surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast including Robin De Jesus, is nonetheless outstanding in the role. Learning to sing properly for this film, it looks and sounds as if he was always destined for the movie musical. Perhaps bringing some of the theatricality and tragedy of his turn as Prior Walter in Angels in America at the National Theatre, Garfield is desperate, skittish, restless in his physicality, and always seemingly with something to prove. His rambling interludes on stage between songs approach poetry. Miranda knows a thing or two about the verbose thinking-out-loud expressions of hard-working protagonists, and it shows.
Vanessa Hudgens as Larson’s peripheral friend and performer Karessa has stand-out moments in ‘Therapy’ and ‘Come to your senses’, but still seems criminally underutilised. Her voice has never sounded better and her screen presence is undeniable; some more interesting characterisation wouldn’t have gone amiss.
The film also falls into some of the same distracting CGI traps as the screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, especially in the Sondheim-esque pastiche anthem ‘Sunday’; the whole cameo-filled scene falls on the gauche side of sentimental. Visceral emotion is evoked best through the staging of numbers practically and simultaneous to the action of the story, not dissimilarly to films like Chicago and Cabaret. It’s in songs like ‘Johnny can’t decide’ and ‘Boho Days’ that we get glimpses of the Jon to come in his posthumous Pulitzer Prize-winning, barrier-breaking Rent. The film knows his potential all along and his struggle and pain are imbued with the magic of hindsight, with Lin-Manuel Miranda crafting a piece of art that celebrates the humanity of a man now made synonymous with his last and greatest work, something which he was never able to see. Miranda allows us all to appreciate Larson’s achievements as a proxy in what is ultimately a beautiful testament to an artist and his life.
Image Credits: Tadas Mikuckis via Unsplash