So, it’s an adaptation of an off-Broadway, autobiographical musical monologue, by Jonathan Larson (starring him), about his failure to break into the theatre scene. It is also a dramatisation of Larson’s life (here played by Andrew Garfield), the same life told in the play but with wider insights, presented as a film musical. This life story chronicles writing and pitching a satirical dystopian musical, Superbia, and a whole host of struggles. Oh, and we also cover the beginning of Larson working on his smash hit musical, RENT (Larson tragically died on the day of its preview performance).
This is a lot, especially as Larson is hardly a household name. This film pitches him as a name to know outside of just knowing RENT, and celebrates him for two hours. Luckily, the film is not as unwieldy as it sounds in description, the separate features fitting together rather seamlessly. The show, tick, tick… Boom!, is used as the framing device. Here, we see Garfield on an intimate stage: a band and no props. It is a stripped back and fascinating show, one that I would have liked to have seen more of (and one that director Lin Manuel Miranda feels the need to jazz up with a kinetic style: quick edits and a mobile camera. He can’t just let it be). From this static point, we burst out into the dramatisations of Larson’s life that the play pulls from. These are often played as straight drama but also include musical numbers, a musical put on top of a musical to portray the musicality of a musical writer’s life. This dramatised story focuses on getting Superbia written and ready to workshop, with the hope of getting it picked up for a Broadway run. Not very seamlessly, the AIDS crisis enters the narrative, a background detail that pushes into the foreground; here, a narrative used (somewhat exploitatively) to foreshadow the writing of RENT (which the original tick, tick… Boom! didn’t deal with). There is emotion here, but also some uncomfortable centring as external stories are used to push an internal narrative.
The reason that this spiralling narrative works, and it does (structurally speaking), is actually also part of the problem. The film has a bland affect, boiling elements down into an accessible and functional gloss that allows the narrative to keep pushing forward. Just like how the interesting play at the centre is jazzed up through direction, the dramatised sections are showily put together. It is a lot of movement, a lot of energy but not much substance. The choice to bring the musical into the real world does sell the idea, and sells it well, that Larson had to be a musical theatre writer. This film shows the form as integral to his existence by making his existence a musical. However, the decision also robs the film of dramatic heft. We are not able to get into the reality of the character, nor into the reality of the writing process, as the tone from the central show is carried into the film at large. The monologue has an ironic affect to it, a self-aware and witty musical with a hyperbolic relationship to the truth. This tone is pushed into the world at large and, yes, it makes for a cohesive and pacey film, but it also makes for one with little staying power.
It is a shame, really. The show at the centre of this film looks really brilliant. It is an experimental work, a raw and candid one. The film around it does not have this feel, in fact it is at odds with it. Here, Lin Manuel Miranda takes an atypical show and makes a very typical movie. It feels very expected, very safe and, to be honest, really rather bland. A moving life story is presented in a way that feels fictive, artificial even. Andrew Garfield is a strong centre, giving a very good performance, but he is especially good in the excerpts we get of the monologues. In the end, I just wanted to watch this show, and I wanted to be able to watch it properly. A scene about half way through becomes a microcosm for the film’s flawed approach. Our perspective shifts back and forth from play to wider reality: the event in the play being interposed with the real life moment that seemingly inspired it. The moment in the play is clever, a playful and imaginatively staged satire of modern romance and a lack of communication. The moment it is intercut with feels very expected: an argument between two partners, the break down of a relationship (the kind of scene we’ve seen so many times before, in a style that is far too familiar). Here, like in the wider film, the need to make the play cinematic ends up diminishing everything.
Lin Manuel Miranda clearly wants to bring Larson to the masses, but has done so in the least interesting way. For the already initiated, this may be a stirring love letter; for those out of the loop, prepare to stay unmoved.