Pressure and Signatures
Still confined to quarters following a Covid test in the household, hence another review of a streaming-only movie.
One of the things that frequently surprises even people who know me fairly well is the fact that I do love a good musical: as recently noted, the original West Side Story is one of my favourite films, and any musical aimed at a grown-up audience (as opposed to a Disney movie) will get a fairly sympathetic hearing from me.
I think this is because a really successful musical does that thing of transporting you to a wholly different world and state of being better than virtually any other genre of cinema; I go to the movies in the hope of experiencing that kind of moment. I think the natural home of virtually all movies is on the big screen (I would make an exception for something like Downton Abbey, obviously), but especially for musicals.
Nevertheless, the streamers are muscling in on this genre in the same way as virtually all the others – the big N released the slightly mercenary Sunday-school musical A Week Away earlier in the year, and now they have followed this up with a new project directed by no less an eminence than Lin-Manuel Miranda – a screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick… Boom!
Larson is probably best-known as the creator of the game-changing late-90s musical Rent, and one rather suspects that the rights can't have been available or they'd have made a new version of that instead (I didn't even know they'd made a movie of Rent; I'm pretty sure it never got a wide release in the UK). This is based on an earlier work, or perhaps a couple of earlier works.
The story behind the film is that Larson (played in the film by Andrew Garfield, who I have to say is a bit of a revelation in terms of his singing and dancing ability if nothing else) spent most of the late 1980s trying to drum up interest in a musical he'd written called Superbia – which, given what we see of it in the movie, sounds rather like an episode of Black Mirror with soft rock songs. (Apparently Larson wanted to make 1984 – The Musical but couldn't get the rights.) The film opens in late 1990 with Larson about to turn thirty, still the definition of a struggling artist, seeing his friends doing well in more mainstream careers, and trying to manage a strained relationship with his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp). Pretty much all that keeps him plugging away in a field swamped with mega-musicals and 'safe' productions is the fact that Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford but also by Sondheim himself at one point) once said something nice about his work.
But there is a glimmer of hope when Superbia is chosen for a workshop presentation, something Larson is hopeful will lead to the show actually being produced and his talent being recognised. But staging the workshop puts even more pressure on his shoulders, adding to the fact that he is chronically short of money, one of his friends is in hospital with an HIV-related condition, and things in his love life are likewise at a crisis point.
I'd never heard of Tick, Tick… Boom! until very recently; I'd certainly never heard of Superbia. I suspect most people have never heard of Superbia, outside of the world of musical-theatre wonkery anyway, as (spoiler alert) the show has never actually been produced. But the story of how that didn't happen was used by Larson as material for a one-man show (or 'rock monologue'), which is how Tick, Tick… Boom! got started (the title alludes to the sense of time running out and the accompanying pressure to succeed that Larson was feeling).
Does this seem a bit convoluted and self-referential? I should say that the film itself is much more straightforward than I'm probably making it sound: it takes the form of a performance of a slightly expanded version of the show (Garfield is supported by Joshua Henry, Vanessa Hudgens, and a band), with extended flashbacks to the events involved.
As a musical, then, it is partially diegetic – many of the songs are performed either at Larson's live show or the workshop presentation – and I always feel this is a bit of a shame. The 'an invisible orchestra strikes up' moment takes a lot of stick, as do various scenes of people breaking out into song and dance in the street, but this is the heart of what musicals about – doing it all diegetically means you're only a step away from cutting all the songs out entirely, all in the name of realism. In any case, while the movie never quite goes for a full massed dance routine, there are a few more imaginative sequences – the one grabbing all the critical attention comes when Larson is working at his diner one Sunday morning, and the various patrons all start bursting into song.
The gag, if you will, is that everyone in the joint bears a suspicious resemblance to a bona fide Broadway legend – faces in the sequence include Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, and Phylicia Rashad, while Miranda himself plays the chef – while other scenes are equally stuffed with big-name cameos if you know your stuff.
The danger here is that the film will just come across as a piece of musical theatre exclusively about the history of musical theatre. Parallels have been drawn between the careers of Larson and Miranda, both immense talents who created huge hits while still very young (Miranda's music has an obvious hip hop influence, whereas Larson came from more of a rock background); the appearance of Sondheim as a character also gives a sense of a lineage going back into the golden age of the musical. There is also a sense of deep concern over the health and prospects of the form – one song, 'Play Game', features staging which is bitterly satirical about just how difficult it is to mount an original new musical today. It almost feels strange to have made a movie about something which is so fundamentally about a different form of art.
However, the movie remains accessible and effective, mainly because it proves to be about something more basic and human than any particular art-form: Larson's struggle to succeed and doubts about his own talent. Lots of films pay lip service to the idea of the struggling artist (usually those about the early life of someone who ends up very successful); few of them put meat on the bones of this idea quite as successfully. At what point do you stop banging your head against the wall and give up? Why suffer in poverty trying to make art when you could put your talent to commercial use and make a comfortable living? You come away from the film with a renewed respect for people who labour under these conditions and eventually get their break.
This is still perhaps a bit more arty than most mainstream musicals, and I didn't really come away whistling any of the tunes. But the backdrop to the film is convincing, the performances are good – very, very good in the case of Andrew Garfield – and Miranda directs with elegance and style. This isn't a traditional musical blockbuster, but then I don't suppose it was meant to be. Nevertheless, a well-made and effective movie.