2021 was undoubtably a very strange year for all of popular culture, not the least of which for the film industry. Hollywood saw a somewhat return to normality from the year previous with a rollout of blockbusters such as a handful of MCU additions and a new 007 film. Titles such as “Luca” and “Encanto” continued Disney’s reputation of not letting the global pandemic have an impact on the quality of their animated film output. There was a plethora of films that rose to the top and established themselves as Academy Award favourites (such as “Dune”, “Belfast”, “The Power of the Dog”) – the collected quality of which exceeding that of the nominees from the previous year in my opinion.
With all that said, the narrative that interested me the most in the industry last year was the complete domination of films and series that were distributed by Netflix. You do not need to look much further than the meteoric success of shows such as “Bridgerton” and “Squid Game” to see the immense cultural impact of Netflix Original releases in 2021. Of all the Netflix Originals from the past 12 months, there was one that particularly stood out to me as perhaps the most unexpectedly great movie musical of all time, and that was “Tick, Tick… Boom!” directed by “Hamilton” writer Lin Manuel-Miranda.
The film follows the recent trend of biopics – popularised by films such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” – however the man that the film revolves around is not of the same superstar status as artists like Freddie Mercury and Elton John. The film documents the life of musical theatre composer Jonathan Larson and is an adaptation of his semi-autobiographical rock musical of the same name. The story of Jonathan Larson is one of the more unique stories in all of contemporary musical history, since his 1996 stage musical “Rent” saw massive mainstream success and acclaim shortly after he died of an aortic aneurysm. “Rent” was staged on Broadway for 12 years however Larson’s life story is a mystery to most since prior to his death, he was a nobody. So as a result, the film is very accessible as very few viewers will have any idea of what to expect from the story of Larson’s rise to posthumous success.
The film is set in 1990 and revolves around Jonathan Larson (portrayed by Andrew Garfield), an artist and café waiter living in impoverished conditions in New York City as he desperately tries to get a musical that he’d worked on for eight years to be produced. All the while he is faced with a multitude of other hardships such as the existential crisis that accompanies turning thirty years old, as well as witnessing people in his life succumb to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Starring in the role of Jonathan Larson is Andrew Garfield, a man who at this point needs no introduction as his celebrity status has been cemented for years. Having seen Garfield in films such as “The Amazing Spider-Man” series, “The Social Network”, and “Hacksaw Ridge”, I obviously knew going in that he is an outstanding actor. That being said, this film demonstrates his versatility like none of his previous ventures. Lin Manuel-Miranda has gone on record saying he wanted to cast Garfield as Jonathan Larson even though he had no idea whether or not he could even sing. Considering he only underwent vocal training specifically for this role, whilst listening to the songs in this film I would have believed that he had been singing professionally all his life. Garfield’s demeanour, facial expressions and attitudes throughout the film mirror that of real-life footage of Larson so unbelievably accurately. I would not go as far as saying Garfield’s performance carries the entire film, however he is the standout in the cast as he wears the passion he poured into this role on his sleeve.
Other standout performances include Robin de Jesús as Larson’s best friend Michael, Alexandra Shipp as Larson’s partner Susan, and Bradley Whitford who has a relatively small part as the late great Broadway composter Stephen Sondheim who was Larson’s hero and biggest influence. For a film that is so centred on one character, it is satisfying that the supporting cast really shows up in the more meaningful and emotional scenes that they have with Garfield.
And since it is a movie musical, it is of course full of musical numbers. What I generally dislike about movie musicals is that a lot of the time, it feels as if the production team focuses so much on the choreography and performance of the musical numbers that it detracts from the quality of the rest of the film. This is thankfully very far from the case in this film. When the stage production in which this film is based off was performed by Larson, he typically did so with just himself at a piano and a band accompaniment on stage – so it was never overly reliant on choreography. The choreography in the film is well integrated into the actual storyline scenes that they accompany, with regular cuts to Andrew Garfield on stage as if he is performing the original production to a live audience. The songs are also brilliantly performed and a few of them are still stuck in my head months after the films release. My only issue with the songs is that occasionally they feel slightly over-produced and dangerously walk the line of sounding like they belong in a Glee episode. Thankfully this is not the case most of the time and there are a number of songs from the film that I still revisit.
My only other slight criticism of the film is that although the pacing of the film is great in the first and final act, there is a portion within the middle of the film where I thought some plot points were getting over addressed to the point that I felt like Larson’s character development was stagnating ever so slightly. Thankfully the final act saved it with some very well acted and emotionally engaging scenes.
So, if you have heard the chorus of “30/90” on your TikTok For You Page and are wanting to watch Andrew Garfield give a masterclass on how to star in a biopic, I would certainly recommend Lin Manuel-Miranda’s directorial debut “Tick, Tick… Boom!”.
Rating – A-