Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writer: Steven Levenson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens
Screened at: Netflix, LA, 12/3/21
Opens: November 19th, 2021
There’s a degree to which all writers end up inserting themselves into their own stories. How much that happens varies, especially if the work is intended to be an autobiography or expressly based on their own lives or experiences. It is always interesting to see how those who create characters for a living see themselves, and what they either omit or exaggerate in their designs of a protagonist or supporting role loosely inspired by them. Producing something in which the writer plays a crucial and purposeful part can be extraordinarily enlightening and insightful, as is the case in the film tick, tick…BOOM!
Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) is his own narrator in a tale that begins with him introducing himself as a playwright desperate to do something memorable by the age of thirty, which is fast approaching. The efforts he puts into his debut musical, Superbia, are extensive and all-consuming, and he draws greatly from the relationships he has with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) to craft the people he wants to see on stage, which puts a strain on his inability to maintain them.
This is the kind of musical that invites audiences along for the entire experience, explaining plot developments as they come and showing them through song and dance. Larson appears at a piano speaking directly to the camera and reflecting on what has happened – and what he wishes had happened. As events occur, songs that will appear in Larson’s work are performed, translating the tension into wondrous melody. In one particularly poignant scene that illustrates the fluid nature of this show-within-a-show, Susan pauses during a fight to express her fury at the fact that Larson is clearly thinking about how he can turn it into a song.
There is an added degree of emotion and impact to this film’s release given the legacy of its creator. The film incorporates the fact that Larson died five years after he wrote and performed his one-man show of the same name, the same day that his follow-up musical that did become a classic, Rent, premiered. The way in which Larson tapped into his environment and the experiences of those in his circle to write Rent is significant enough in itself, but there is particular melancholy to the sad truth that, after obsessing over his accomplishments by age thirty, Larson didn’t live much beyond that.
Much of this film’s effectiveness comes from the extraordinary lead performance by star Andrew Garfield. In just over a decade of film work, Garfield has demonstrated extraordinary range, with roles in a variety of well-received projects including Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, 99 Homes, and another film released this year, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Here, he becomes Larson, channeling his energy and his frustration with the universe into a deeply resonant and highly entertaining turn, making him an extremely endearing narrator.
Garfield is surrounded by an excellent cast that includes Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens as Karissa, a friend who plays a role based on Susan in readings and performances. They both make terrific scene partners for Garfield, and de Jesús also delivers a sympathetic and memorable performance. The timing of this film’s release and the death of Stephen Sondheim, who plays a small but significant part in the film, only further adds to its impact. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a musician with a keen eye to what defines today’s generation, makes a strong and formidable directorial debut in a moving and respectful tribute to one of the greats that came before him.
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+