Jonathan Larson quickly became one of the defining voices of his generation, and never even lived to witness it. Larson passed away suddenly from an aneurism from marfin’s syndrome the night before the opening day previews for his magnum opus, Rent, in 1996, at age 35. The writer, a fierce ally during the AIDS crisis, gave a grounded look at individuals that never got such a humanist look on the Broadway stage before. He helped changed the way people looked at the LGBTQ community and gave a voice to those that never had one.
Hamilton creator and mega-talent Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his feature directorial debut a personal endeavor as Larson is directly credited as one of his major influences. Thankfully, that passion translates into a deeply moving, inspirational adaptation of Larson’s auto-biographical “rock monologue”.
Quickly approaching the age of 30 and in dire need of a break, struggling artist Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) is ready for life to get better. Desperate to get anyone invested in his musical, a love story set in a dystopian future, Jonathan makes the most of his connections in the NYC theater scene to stage a workshop, hoping to attract the right people to make his dreams a reality, and to break out of the rigid monotonies of his dead-end diner job. Jonathan’s girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), has her own ambitions as a dancer that leads to a job offer that would take them out of the city, but Jonathan’s head is so into his work, their relationship is at a standstill. Jonathan’s childhood best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesus), has taken a steady, if unfulfilling job at a marketing firm, while living under the ever-growing AIDS crisis, and attempts to get Jonathan to also take a more financially stable career path.
tick, tick…Boom! captures the experience of a struggling artist with a sense of authenticity that makes the already universal story ring even more true. Lin-Manuel Miranda brings his usual sense of bravado and showmanship behind the camera. Miranda, a critical figure in today’s pop culture, has stated it was his love for Rent that helped ignite his passion for the arts, and that personal connection is apparent. He has a vivid ability to bring the specific sense of scale of the stage into the cinematic landscape. The meta framing device is of Larson performing his show on a small stage with an intimate-sized crowd, with the film cutting back-and-forth between the narrative and the performance. One sequence that bounces between a dance number and an argument is an inventive bit of storytelling. The kinetic energy of Miranda’s direction gives the musical numbers an irresistible pop.
Andrew Garfield fully inhabits the essence of Jonathan Larson and disappears into the role. Not known for his musical abilities, the Oscar-nominee underwent extensive amounts of singing lessons for the role, but judging from his work on screen, you’d think he’s been doing it his whole life. Larson’s inner angst is palpable from the get-go thanks to Garfield’s exuberant performance and the direction of Miranda.
The supporting cast adds even more life to Larson’s story, with Robin de Jesus and Alexandra Shipp making memorable turns alongside Garfield, and provide many of the films most heartfelt moments. Vanessa Hudgens, who dazzled in the television production of Rent Live in the coveted role of Maureen, originated by Idina Menzel, is Karessa, one of the lead singers in Larson’s workshop production, whose vocal talents are used wisely. Bradley Whitford gets a couple of great scenes as Stephen Sondheim, who was actually responsible for giving Larson a path towards success.
tick, tick…Boom! isn’t a story about the death of Jonathan Larson, but a celebration of his life and the man he was. While the energetic pace may detract from some of the emotional beats, Lin-Manuel Miranda has made a film that speaks to the dreamer in all of us and will have you walking away with a deep understanding of the man whose influence will continue to be felt in the future.