Monday, December 6, 2021

That ticking timebomb

I don't usually discuss movies in this space. In fact, I haven't yet. But no movie has captured the travails and triumphs of the writer's life quite like tick, tick... BOOM!, which premiered on Netflix a couple weeks ago. And I can't say enough good things about it.

The film is based on the stage musical written by Jonathan Larson, who went on to fame and immortality as the genius behind Rent. What is now believed to be an undiagnosed case of Marfan syndrome led to Larson's sudden and tragic death from an aortic aneurysm on the morning of Rent's first off-Broadway preview. He was only 35.

tick, tick... BOOM! was Larson's third musical, coming a couple years before Rent's first staged reading in 1993, but his first to get multiple productions and serious attention.

I saw the stage musical in 2015 at Denver's now defunct Ignite Theater. To be honest, I was underwhelmed by it all. While I was drawn to the premise, I found the music to be mostly unforgettable and the production painfully claustrophobic, constrained as it was to a small black box stage dominated by a stack of weird, too-steep levels. I also felt the main character was unsympathetic and, frankly, annoying--a wannabe composer absolutely convinced of his own greatness despite failing to demonstrate it at any point in the two-hour-long musical.

Here's the thing. Although the musical was largely based on Jonathan's life, and even though the main character is named Jon, the stage musical is only semi-autobiographical. That's because it changes some key facts about Jonathan's life and fills in the rest of the cast with fictional characters. So there's nothing in the stage version that guarantees that he will ever find success.

When it came time to adapt the stage musical for the film, first-time director Lin-Manuel Miranda--who seems to be everywhere these days--made one strategic decision that changed the whole trajectory of the film. What he did, quite simply, is drop the semi.

From the very first scene, the film presents itself as the story of the Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent. And it reminds us that we lost him right as he'd reached the cusp of success (no spoilers here).

That changes everything. No longer a wannabe, Jonathan is seen as the genius he was. What's more, we feel his struggle every time he runs into a brick wall trying to put his latest musical on its feet. As producer after producer slams the door on his dreams, all we can think is one thing: How can these people be so blind?

Andrew Garfield's ebullient performance also goes a long way toward making Jonathan a character you can't help but love. His Jonathan practically bounces off the walls as he leads his friends in an impromptu ditty about the Bohemian life ("Boho Life") or drools over his best friend Michael's newfound financial success as a Wall Street hack ("No More").

Guess what? The music is no longer forgettable. Larson's angular melodies really benefit from the driving guitar work and dynamic vocal performances they're given here, so much so that I've been humming the tunes almost non-stop still I saw the movie almost two weeks ago,

And let's give Miranda some credit. The guy knows how to stage a musical number. Song after song leaps off the screen with dynamic camerawork and a wry sense of humor. And while the dancing may not be as ambitious as it is in some musicals (this is an intimate, small-scale show after all), it is bursting with energy and perfectly matches the spirit of each piece.

You've especially got to love the chorus of past and present Broadway greats in the moving diner-set anthem "Sunday".

Having belonged to several writing groups, I know that many beginning writers love to write about their struggles breaking in. As if there's something unique or compelling about their story.

I've got one piece of advice about that. Don't. That's a story for the geniuses to tell, not us mortals.

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