Musicals are magical. Not necessarily fantastic, but definitely full of wonder. They have the ability to sing and dance through life, without always undercutting the ominous nature of reality. Showtunes are the the musical industry's gifts to the world of music, but it's the songs which make sense only in the context and tell a story without being consciously narrative, which make musicals special. Jonathan Larson changed the scene for musical theatre with Rent which holds the record for the longest running Broadway show. He unfortunately never got to see that, and on the day of his death, he was yet to do anything worthwhile. Before Rent, he'd written tick, tick… Boom! about struggling to get his first musical produced around the time he was turning thirty.
Tick, tick… Boom! wasn't produced on Broadway till as late as 2001, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who'd go on to become the next big phenomenon as Larson on Broadway, with Hamilton, has said it changed his life. When Netflix approached him to make a film adaptation, he immediately responded affirmatively, and so was born tick, tick… BOOM! It's Miranda's directorial debut, and the acknowledgement of the protagonist's inspiration on him, is beautifully expressed through the film. It's the ultimate tribute to the man who revolutionised musical theatre forever. Albeit, it's too self-indulgent at times, and is mediocre as a directorial effort, but it's possibly a dream come true for all musical fans.
Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson is exactly the right amount of charming. He's also a vision of motion, constantly on his feet, singing and dancing, and being physically dramatic in general, with an infectious energy that makes the world incredibly inviting. Right from the first song, which he sings while sitting at the piano, he gives furtive glances and head shakes just like the man he's portraying, which is a testament to his hard work. He's completely disappeared into the role, and the enthusiasm with which he flits from one song to another, one conversation to another, and just never stops being an image of passion, keeps your eyes glued to the screen.
The story itself will hit very close for any aspiring artist. Larson wasn't holding back when he made this autobiographical musical which he left incomplete. It's painfully aware of the pitfalls of romanticising the struggle of making it as an artist. However, it's also much too narcissistic for an autobiography, lacking any sincerity about Larson's own obnoxious behaviour. That might be excusable for a self-portrait by a self-absorbed man, but Lin's film also lacks commentary. While it's true that the man's predicament was truly an indictment of the way society treated new art, one has to realize, he had privileges as a straight white man in an America where a genocide of LGBTQ people was ongoing.
Even if sympathizing with the man who often lacks even the basic sympathy for people who loved him and cared about him, may become tiring, the magical nature of the musical world, makes it endurable. Every song is infectiously catchy, and only if you categorically dislike musicals, will you not feel inclined to sing along. The film opens with '30/90′ which exactly captures the anxiety of not having anything to show for the golden years of your life. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can feel the lines 'They're singing happy birthday / You just want to lay down and cry'. The song 'Why' doesn't work as a showtune, but as an ode to friendship with a person on their deathbed, it's beautiful.
The editing of the film is annoying at quite a few points, especially the emotionally compelling conversations, like Jonathan's ego clashes, which deserve much more sincere cinematography. The use of gimmicky fake footage slices don't make anything more convincing. However, one part Lin manages to sell, and not just sell, but absolutely engross the mind with, is the story about artistic inspiration. Jonathan is seen to be struggling with the starting, alternating between 'your' and 'you're', before giving up. And then there's the visually surprising number 'Swimming.' There's a visualisation for the way inspiration strikes unexpectedly, through a magical effect, you can only see in a movie.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's meta musical, as it may be called, given how it's a musical about making musicals, is a sincere and extremely fond tribute to Larson. It's lacking in sensitivity, because even when the characters confront Jonathan on being ignorant of others' needs, we are eventually made to feel nothing but sympathy for him. That and the amateurish gimmicks used in the directions aside, this is a treat for those who enjoy musical theatre. You're involved in the creative process, you get to watch magic unfold through 'Sunday', during which there are enough cameos by imminent figures to make it feel like Broadway's Avengers assemble moment, and you get an honest look at the struggles of being an artist. It's endearing, because it takes its time in covering the ground from one pitfall to the other, and rewards you with amazing song after amazing song. Andrew Garfield deserves an Academy Award for Best Actor, and Alexandra Shipp is a revelation, making most of her spotlight as the leading lady. And Lin just pours his love for musicals and Larson into the project which makes it memorable.