Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 14, 2021 11:02 pm 
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Today's great Broadway musical master studies the process of musical-making

Another Netflix movie that should be seen on the big screen, not your home tube, no matter how grandiose. In fact it should probably be seen on a theater stage, because it's essentially a musical. But it's conceived as a film of a musical, and digital editing techniques have been used to achieve effects that.... don't seem always to contribute anything so much as our awareness of how many minuscule edits modern digital editing methods can seamlessly weave in and out of a scene. But that's good, because this is a musical about creating a musical - Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield, who is this movie), working in a diner, interacting with his best friend and his girlfriend, struggling to complete a project he's been at for eight years. The lightning edits weave us back and forth between the life and the artistic struggle and the work.

This is for those who are fans of Hamilton, because it's Lin-Manuel Miranda's debut as a film director. Miranda is responsible for the most successful and innovative musical of recent times, so not surprising that he would be drawn to the subject of this film, Jonathan Larson, who eventually created Rent, the most successful and innovative musical of the Nineties.

But, somewhat perversely, Rent is barely more than a postscript. Instead, the focus is on Larson's dystopian rock musical, Superbia and what painstakingly grew out of it. No one understands Superbia, though numerous lights of the industry recognize Larson's unquestionable talent. He is on the brink of his thirtieth birthday. Especially since he knows that his idol Stephen Sondheim got his first musical on Broadway at 27, he sees reaching 30 as the death-knell of his youth, and hence his promise. Infuriated and exhilarated by the pressure of time, he creates out of his own life a one-person show with a band, eventually called tick, tick... Boum. Abandoning the dystopian future he focuses on his own struggle: a young man slipping out of youth trying to finish a successful musical - one that's also original.

As is very often (but not always!) the case it was beneficial that I entered this film knowing nothing but that it was musical and starred Andrew Garfield. I don't like musicals, but I like him and have followed most of what he's done on film since Boy A, including Red Rider, The Social Network, two 'Spiderman' films, grueling work for Mel Gibson and Martin Scorsese in the same year. Through "failures," too. But while Breathe is a dull one, David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake is one I'm ready to defend. Through them all there has been a sweetness and an energy that have appealed, and endured.

Though the general situation - young man growing older still struggling to prove his talent with a successful Broadway musical - is very clear, I wasn't really quite aware what was going on when the tick, tick. . . Boum! within the tick, tick. . . Boum! was presented; I thought it was just another confused attempt to reformat his failed dystopian musical, I guess. There had been a presentation of the latter by a potential cast in a Broadway rehearsal studio in front of an invited audience of industry heavies, including the by-now-sympathetic Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), which had been a resounding success that left him exactly nowhere: everybody couldn't wait to see Larson's next musical, the one that would not only show talent but be playable, that out-of-towners would buy tickets for.

Through all this Garfield as "Jon" is constantly emoting and singing, with manic energy. As a fan I was pleased and astonished that he could do this. I've been impressed at his versatility, but sadly, haven't seen him on stage; missing his Bif in Death of a Salesman directed by Mike Nichols with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman particularly hurts. Nonetheless, he is so remarkable in this film, it almost makes up for that: it has the feel, very often, of a stage performance. It almost feels like he's deliberately overacting, the reverse of what you're supposed to do for a camera. End credits clips of the real Jonathan Larson indicate that's not inappropriate: we see what a manic, intense person he was.

Was, because while he went on from tick, tick...Boum! to compose Rent, as we learn at the end of this vibrant musical-film, Larson died in 1996, of an aortic dissection, hours before the first scheduled Off Broadway performance of Rent. The poignancy of this melds in the film with Larson's lovingly recreated best-friendship with his bosom-buddy since age eight and fellow aspiring Broadway star and New York roommate, Michael (Robin de Jesus), who has come out as gay, and given up being an actor for lucrative work in advertising and a posh apartment - while Jon remains in a dump working at a diner - and then gets diagnosed with HIV in 1990, when that still seemed like a death sentence.

Not so sad but also negative is Jon's relationship with his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), who has to move on because he hasn't time for her and lets his life be a mess so he can focus on his dream, and his foundering effort to compose the key song for the love interest in his musical. She is lovely and charming and she wants him to focus on her and beg her not to take a secure job Upstate, but he can't. You can call his attitude narcissistic. Or you can call it total dedication to his art. He does have time for Michael, when he learns he has HIV. With Garfield playing this role, and giving it all he's got, you can see it as absolutely over-the-top, or as so completely engaging it makes a person like me, who hates musicals and can't relate to the songs, listen to the songs - and almost understand them. Judge accordingly. If a musical about the making of a musical isn't too convoluted for you, if Broadway history matters to you, go for it. Otherwise, see another movie.

tick, tick... Boum!, 115 mins., debuted in the AFI festival Nov. 10, 2021. A week later, Nov. 19, it opened limited in many countries, and on the internet simultaneously. Metacritic rating: 76%.

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda. Screenplay: Steven Levenson, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson. Camera: Alice Brooks. Editors: Myron Kerstein, Andrew Weisblum. Music: Jonathan Larson.

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