Tick, tick...BOOM! review: Andrew Garfield seems electrified by the task of bringing Jonathan Larson to life

·3-min read
 (Macall Polay/NETFLIX)
(Macall Polay/NETFLIX)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film directing debut has been described as a “musical based on a musical about writing a musical”. And if the thought of that makes your brain ache, don’t worry. You’d never guess writer/singer/rapper/actor Miranda was new to this behind-the-camera game and he juggles the meta scenes with off-kilter exuberance (a diner, through his lens, becomes a lovely multi-verse of weirdness; so does a swimming pool). Miranda is our century’s most prolific renaissance man. Composer. Performer. Director. Tick, tick, tick.

That said, we expect more from Miranda than ingenuity and those hoping for a game-changer, a la Hamilton, will be disappointed. Despite being a child-free zone, this project is kid-friendly, sentimental and often facile. I blame scriptwriter Steven Levenson and the person who wrote the songs. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The film’s central character is New York-based, rambunctiously curly-haired self-styled bohemian singer/composer, Jon (Andrew Garfield), who’s about to hit thirty. Driven mad by the ticking of his creative clock, and the desire to be more like his mentor, Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford), Jon races to finish a sci-fi musical, called Superbia. His colleague, Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens; nerve-shreddingly smiley), wants Jon to write an anthem that will pull the show’s third act together. Meanwhile, Jon’s beautiful girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp; underused) begs him to concentrate on their relationship and Jon’s gay best friend (Robin de Jesus) thinks Jon should get a “proper” job. Naturally, our hero feels torn. In “Johnny Can’t Decide”, he warbles, “Johnny has no guide. Johnny wants to hide. Can he make a mark, if he gives up his spark?”

 (Macall Polay/NETFLIX)
(Macall Polay/NETFLIX)

To criticise the songs in this movie is a tricky business, because they come from an autobiographical, 1990 show devised by theatre legend, Jonathan Larson. The latter has mythic status not just because he went on to create the global phenomenon that is Rent, but because he died of an aneurysm just before the rock opera opened. Miranda and his team want to honour a gifted artist who never got to bask in the spotlight. Sad but true, many of these numbers don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Anyway, there’s still plenty to enjoy. Garfield seems electrified by the task of bringing Larson to life. He’s never sung in a movie before and his supple voice spills over with warm (close your eyes during the cosily melancholic “Why” and you could be listening to Ben Folds). Academy voters love versatility; don’t be surprised if this performance snags a Best Actor nomination.

Garfield, by the way, is a great actor. Solid in event movies (Martin Scorsese’s Silence; David Fincher’s The Social Network and the Amazing Spiderman series) he tends to come into his own in smaller stories (see 99 Homes and Under the Silver Lake). Now in his late thirties, he still looks like the kind of man-child whose underpants regularly invade his bum crack. He leans into that lack of poise to play Larson as an adorable cross between Tigger and Eeyore.

 (MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021)
(MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021)

Also yummy: the Broadway greats who float through ‘Sunday’ and a wry bit of rapping from Tariq Trotter.

Though this film could do with more sex, drugs and nuance, it has glorious interludes and a genuinely interesting message (panic gets us nowhere). Maybe Miranda’s trying to tell us something about his own brilliant career. I reckon he’s saying: waking up a generation can’t be rushed; I’ll give you more fireworks, but it’s going to take time.

115mins 12A. In selected cinemas on November 12 and on Netflix from November 19

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