The only reason ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ was streaming on my screen was because Netflix suggested it in big bold banners at the top of its home-screen. Andrew Garfield was on the poster, so perhaps like thousands around the world I told myself ‘why not?’. Without a clue about the title. But as it starts, you are drawn to a story that will stay with you for a while. Softly sniffling mid-film, I made a mental note to myself “must check out who the director is and what movies they’ve made in the past”.
Here’s the deal – this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut. Now that’s some ‘boom!’ for the brain right there. Miranda has been a successful writer-composer on Broadway, and that definitely shows – ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ feels more like a live-stage play in many parts. And for those who love musicals, it doesn’t get better than this.
The story is based on a musical by Jonathan Larson, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (posthumously). Andrew Garfield plays Larson and we go on an emotional journey of his rise from a penniless writer to a ‘great American playwright’ in the bustling New York. Anybody with a creative streak will find this musical cathartic – the struggle of staying up night after night, acutely aware of how the time is slipping right under their noses, as they try to finish their next piece – it hits you in the gut. Garfield is no longer the friendly neighborhood hero we associate him with. Instead, he is an obsessive-narcissistic writer, too lost in his own world, who does care about his friends, but just doesn’t have the time to show it.
Alexandra Shipp plays Alexa, Larson’s dancer girlfriend who wants him to come away with her after she lands a ‘good/conventional’ job, because he is barely making any money as a part-time waiter and a full-time dreamer/writer. Shipp is gorgeous and measured in her performance, she has a diva-like deep singing voice. Unfortunately there’s just no spark between Garfield and her. In-fact, Garfield has more chemistry with Robin de Jesus, who plays his gay best-friend. The two are childhood besties and their love-hate friendship is touching. Too bad Robin doesn’t get to do a lot of singing, because that man’s got a great voice.
Garfield of course has turned out to be a revelation for everybody in the entertainment industry, since nobody really knew he could sing, and HE CAN. He sings alongside Vanessa Hudgens in many scenes and pretty much outshines her. Hudgens has a cameo as Karessa, a singer in Larson’s musical and she just blends into the background, like a regular likable member of a band. Hudgens does get her spot in the limelight, she gets to co-sing the standout track in the film called “Come To Your Senses” with Shipp. The first thing I did after the movie was finding and downloading the track on my music app.
Since the film unfolds in 1990, the plot touches upon the AIDS epidemic that was at its height in America at the time. The makers poignantly capture the homophobia and heartbreak the LGBTQ+ community had to grapple with back then. The story’s strength lies in its realism, despite all the dancing and theatrics. The songs are elaborate, filled with details of instances that carry the story forward. It’s quite unlike the Bollywood-like ‘La La Land’ (2016), whose easy to remember songs made it an instant hit with viewers.
Since the soundtrack is all based on Larson’s award-winning work, Lin-Manuel Miranda already had a winner in his hands. But as we’ve seen with the disastrous 2019 remake of ‘Cats’ (which won six Razzies that included worst film, screenplay and director) by Tom Hooper – one can go grievously wrong with an already hit script. Miranda doesn’t get too ambitious with the sets and cinematography, even though there is a touch of whimsy to some of the scores. There’s a clever number shot at a diner, where Larson is having a tough Sunday at work, so he spins a song around his grumpy customers. Towards the end of the song, he pushes down the wall of the diner, and it’s symbolic of how he is pushing his creative limits by milking everything that happens around him for his writing.
The climax is the kind of crescendo you would expect from a movie such as this. It’s emotional, moving and wraps the tale of Larson’s ascent into the American theater world. Just one song could’ve been chopped off in the second-half (there’s one at a swimming-pool), it only serves to over-explain stuff. So apart from one extra song, and the lukewarm chemistry between Garfield & Shipp, I have nothing to complain about. I loved this film and could probably watch it again. It’s a 8.5/10 from me.
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