The latest trend in movie musicals has already brought us some pretty dang entertaining gems, and tick, tick… Boom!, the story about Jonathan Larson, is no exception. Considering that this is already turning out to be a rather weak awards season, weaker even than last year’s, I’d say that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is a solid addition to the potential Best Picture lineup that proves wrong all those who look down on the performing arts.
Yet it’s still pretty flawed. Jonathan Larson’s significant other, Susan, frankly isn’t given enough to do, more of the typical girlfriend motivator than one who undergoes her own development. She’s more of an antagonistic force against Jonathan as he obsesses over his craft, much like the older adults in this film. Almost all of Jonathan’s interactions with his friends outside of his roommate, Michael, are kept to an extreme minimum, which consequently means you don’t feel he lost so many friends as he says he has because he isn’t shown having that many strong connections with a lot of people; they all needed more screentime.
The focus is more on the ways Miranda depicts the culture of its 1990 setting, which even then is done with a real 2021 lens. That includes the way it attacks the advertising industry and mentions how same-sex marriage back then was still outlawed. The best it does with these scenarios is one scene where a character seems to hilariously predict the future of our current technology, but that’s it. Otherwise, these points feel forced in without much leverage into the main plot of Jonathan writing a show; it could have been improved if more was done to show the actual struggle of Michael when he gets HIV.
Yet the focus even more so is on the music; keeping to the familiar trend of squeaky-clean musicals, the technical qualities try hard to go big yet can’t notice their obvious shortcomings. At one point there’s a sad piano song played on an empty stage, but cinematographer Alice Brooks (In the Heights) doesn’t do enough to emphasize the loneliness of the situation by framing it accordingly to show how alone Jonathan is in this moment. Another musical number at a diner has some pretty awful greenscreen effects, which even then isn’t as noticeable as the bad lip-syncing. You’d think that with more advanced technology, this obvious error would be noticed and fixed within post-production. There was so much potential in advancing the genre with this much darker real-life subject matter, but the only way this advances the mature treatment of movie musicals is one steamy sex scene in a darkly lit room, which even then feels out of place compared to the other moodier scenes.
Yet these issues shouldn’t matter at the end of the day because there’s so much more value in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Jonathan’s life. In one pivotal scene, Robin de Jesus as Michael nails his delivery when he begs to ask: Does the world need more art? He and Andrew Garfield have such amazing chemistry together in the way they act like such believable bros; they keep one another on tempo like the ticking sound that constantly plays throughout the feature. Andrew Garfield works well with all the other actors on set as well, young and old, which helps his performance all the more as he gets through his stressful job at the café and suffers from the grief of his dying friends.
Another philosophy in this film is that a song should sound great even without the instruments, which when you think about it, is true! There are points here when you notice the vocals take control over every song, which helps the musical numbers flow in more naturally without the cheesy feel that the actors are suddenly breaking out into song. That even goes to one funny number that’s played back-and-forth between a verbal fight and Andrew Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens giving wide smiles. The result is a great melody within the chorus, especially when you hear Vanessa Hudgens’ delightfully recognizable voice.
Right from the very first scene, Jonathan does what appears to be a standup comedy show with his band, and uses this to tell the story of how he wrote his first show. With this clever format, Miranda found a healthy balance between the mockumentary style and throwing in some more fun creative touches, such as musical notes digitally appearing on swimming pool tiles, or a random guy from the crowd rapping to the style of a 90s music video.
Yet while Miranda is the one in charge of the whole shebang, what would this movie musical be without Andrew Garfield? He makes the experience worth it all in the way he depicts Jonathan’s life crisis when he hit age thirty, a crisis that carries on throughout Garfield’s entire performance. He even cries as he sings in a way that makes you want to cry too; I sincerely hope that he wins the Oscar for Best Actor, he already seems like he’ll be the best of the nominees!
In our current society that has very skewed ideas on what makes a movie good or bad, we indeed need tick, tick… Boom! now more than ever. This glance back at our culture thirty years ago helps us see how little things have changed in what we claim to still value, and how the arts are crucial in helping us remember where our priorities need to be. We only have so little time in our lives, and our time could be up tomorrow, so let’s stop acting like we have all the time to make a perfect painting.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!