Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Julie Oh and Lin-Manuel Miranda Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda Screenplay: Steven Levenson Cast: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter, Judith Light, Michaela Jaé (Mj) Rodriguez, Ben Levi Ross, Laura Benanti, Danielle Ferland, Micaela Diamond, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joanna P. Adler, Noah Robbins, Kate Rockwell, Judy Kuhn, Danny Burstein, Lauren Marcus, Richard Kind, Tariq Trotter, Jelani Alladin and Chris Sullivan Distributor: Netflix
Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose “Hamilton” has become a pop phenomenon, makes his feature directing debut with this celebration of the poignantly meteoric career of his forerunner Jonathan Larson. Larson is credited with reinventing the Broadway musical with “Rent” in 1996. It ran for twelve years, propelled not only by its “La Bohème”-inspired plot about starving artists in contemporary NYC and Larson’s music and lyrics, but by the sad fact that Larson did not live to witness its enormous success, dying suddenly of an aortic aneurism at age thirty-five shortly before its public premiere; and it clearly remains one of Miranda’s chief inspirations.
But “Rent” wasn’t Larson’s first work. Prior to it he wrote the semi-autobiographical piece on which this film is based. He began performing it as a one-man musical monologue as early as 1990; the title reflects his fear of never creating a Broadway musical as he counts the days to the fateful moment he will turn thirty. After his death playwright David Auburn refashioned “Tick, Tick…Boom!” as a three-person musical which became a success after its off-Broadway premiere in 2001. In turn it serves as the basis for the screenplay “opened up” here by Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”), in which Andrew Garfield plays Larson, who’s supporting himself—barely—by working in a Big Apple diner while chasing his dream.
In his adaptation Levenson retains the two other main characters from Auburn’s version—Susan (Alexandra Shipp), Larson’s girlfriend, a dancer who’s moving away from the city for to work as a teacher and urges him to go with her, and Michael (Robin de Jesús), Jonathan’s gay best friend since childhood and ex-roommate, who’s abandoned his dreams of acting and moved into advertising (and a luxurious new apartment). He surrounds them with characters only mentioned by the Larson surrogate or played by the two other actors in the stage version.
These include Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman), a supportive teacher who’s arranging a workshop presentation of “Superbia,” the sci-fi musical inspired by “1984” that Larson’s been working on for years, in the hope that it might help secure funding for an actual production of the show. The obligatory crisis is that Larson is suffering from writer’s block, unable to write a second-act song for the musical’s female lead Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), despite the fact that his idol Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) had told him at an earlier run-through that one was needed.
Larson is eventually inspired to write that needed song, “Come to Your Senses,” and the workshop goes well, earning Larson further encouragement from Sondheim. But as his “legendary” agent Rosa Stevens (Judith Light) informs him, no one is interested in putting money into a show that will be expensive to produce and probably be a commercial disaster. Her advice is to press on to the next effort, and this time follow the age-old maxim to “write what you know.”
What Larson knew, and wrote about in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” was failure, frustration and…determination and hope that despite his feeling that time was running out, he’d keep holding onto his dream. The shadow hanging over even the show’s most upbeat moments, of course, is our knowledge that although his work would ultimately win him the recognition he so craved, his sense of fatalism was nonetheless right on, since he wouldn’t be around to revel in it.
This is, then, a musical about a starving young artist striving to make it in the milieu he loves although the world appears to be falling apart around him—“Why,” the plaintive lament Larson delivers after Michael reveals a secret that, given the time, was all too common, encapsulates his mixture of anger and anxiety after the workshop has failed to have the desired result. Even the biggest, most ambitious production number in the show—“Sunday,” set at the diner where he works–is a mixture of sweet and sour. (Broadway fans, though, will have a field day identifying the raft of performers who join in it as customers.)
Some of the funniest bits of business in the movie are the most old-fashioned—Light’s portrait of the pushy, cynical agent and Richard Kind’s turn as an obtuse critic who has to do verbal cartwheels when he’s stuck on a workshop panel with Sondheim and has the effrontery to offer his opinions first. But they’re isolated moments in a piece that looks forward to “Rent” in far more ways than it looks backward to Broadway’s golden age.
In directing this love letter to Larson’s indomitability and to the musical stage as a whole, Miranda gives his all, and his work, though not especially inventive except for the tactic of cutting periodically to Larson/Garfield performing his one-man show as a counterpoint to his expansion of it, is sleek and propulsive. He’s helped by an ace crafts team—production designer Alex Digerlando, costumer Melissa Toth, cinematographer Alice Brooks, and editors Myrn Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum.
And by his committed cast. Garfield isn’t the strongest singer in the world, but he delivers the vocals with passion if not the ultimate in finesse, and employs his gangly body and expressive face to convey Jonathan’s innate drive in the face of despair. Shipp and de Jesús offer sterling support, and Hudgens sings “Come to Your Senses” for all its worth. Whitford, meanwhile, is so convincing you might take him for the real thing
Miranda has transformed what began as Larson’s rumination on his own failure into a tribute to the triumph he would achieve but never enjoy, and has done so with style and grace—a case of a debt repaid.