tick, tick… BOOM! (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): How he came to write “Rent”

“tick, tick… BOOM!”, which was released on Netflix on last Friday after released in movie theaters in the previous week, is a solid musical movie packed with enough goodies to entertain you. Based on the semi-autobiographical musical of the same name written by late Jonathan Larson, the movie exuberantly bounces from one enjoyable musical moment to another, and it also works as a sincere and respectful tribute to Larson’s tragically short career, which could have gone further if he had not suddenly died right before the opening night of the 1996 Broadway stage production of his Tony and Pulitzer-winning musical “Rent”.

The movie begins with Larson, played by Andrew Garfield, performing at New York Theater Workshop along several singers and musicians in 1992, and then it goes back to his struggling time in New York City, 1990 as “30/90” is performed on the soundtrack. While quite determined to reach for any artistic breakthrough, Larson has been quite depressed by the fact that he has not achieved anything significant during last several years, and the only consolation for him comes from his caring girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and his reliable best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), who has generously provided Larson a fairly acceptable apartment to stay as his landlord.

Anyway, it finally looks like Larson will get a long-awaited opportunity for his career advance. Thanks to Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman), who is the head of Musical Theatre at Playwrights Horizons, he is soon going to have the workshop on an ambitious musical on which he has worked for no less than 8 years, and it seems that things will go well for him if he can only write a very good song which, as his legendary mentor Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) already pointed out, is absolutely necessary for enhancing the flawed Act 2 of the musical.

However, of course, a stroke of inspiration Larson needs right now does not come easily to him from the beginning. Although he is initially confident that he will write the song before the workshop begins several days later, he soon finds himself on a sort of composer’s block, and his mind only gets distracted more and more as he struggles with a number of other problems. For example, he must pay those accumulating bills for electricity and heating as soon as possible, and he also must make up his mind on his current relationship with Susan, who has supported him a lot during all those years between them but is recently considering accepting a new job outside New York City.

With Larson’s musical performance in 1992 functioning as its narrative framework, the movie doles out a series of effective musical numbers under director/co-producer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s efficient direction. In case of one wonderful musical sequence unfolded at a local diner where Larson has worked, it is skillfully presented with enough spirit and energy before eventually culminating to a big climax, and some of you may enjoy the brief appearance of a bunch of well-known Broadway performers. In case of “Therapy”, the movie effortlessly alternates between humor and bitterness as Larson and his girlfriend come to face the harsh truth about their increasingly strained relationship, and that is surely another highlight in the film.

Meanwhile, the movie gradually generates more gravitas during its second half as Larson subsequently comes to realize where his artistic talent and passion should really go. As becoming more aware of many people around him devastated by the ongoing AIDS epidemic, Larson eventually decides to write something inspired by what he has seen from their struggles and tragedies, and, as shown to us around the end of the film, that led to the creation of “Rent”.

As the center of the film, Garfield gives a terrific performance which surprises us with another side of his considerable talent. Although he was not a trained singer from the beginning, he prepared himself a lot before the shooting began, and the result is surprisingly good to say the least. Besides dexterously delivering a number of key musical moments, Garfield steadily holds the movie from the beginning to the end with his natural charm and charisma, and I will not be surprised if he receives an Oscar nomination in next year.

In case of the other main cast members in the film, they mostly come and go around Garfield while bringing some extra personality to the film. While Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens support Garfield well during several musical scenes, Alexandra Shipp, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Judith Light, Bradley Whitford, and Robin de Jesús fill their respective supporting roles well, and de Jesús, who previously drew my attention for the first time via his flamboyant supporting turn in Netflix film “The Boys in the Band” (2020), is particularly impressive when his character reveals his own personal struggle to Larson later in the story.

In conclusion, “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a well-made musical film thanks to the commendable efforts from Miranda and his cast and crew members, and Miranda, who incidentally became determined to pursue his artistic passion more after watching the Broadway stage production of “Rent” in 1996, makes a fine feature film debut here in addition to paying enough respect and admiration to Larson’s artistic career and achievement. In short, this is another notable musical film of this year after the recent movie adaptation of Miranda’s first musical “In the Heights”, and I am only regretful about not being able to watch it on big movie theater screen.

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