Though I saw RENT on stage years ago (can’t remember when or where exactly), I have zero knowledge about its creator Jonathan Larson. I thought the film’s title is so unique and brilliant, which apparently is based on Larson’s one-night-only monologue performance. I only just realized that fact as I got to the end of the movie, but for much of the movie, I was wondering what this set-up is all about.
Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) sings while playing piano, reciting his creative experience with a small band (one of the singers is Vanessa Hudgens), which focuses on his journey to bring his futuristic rock opera Superbia to life. Of course as the film progresses, it starts to make sense.
This is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, and given his stage background, his love for theatre is palpable. I have to admit that the first hour I was getting used to his directing style, which makes me feel like I’m watching a play being recorded for the screen. The constant quick cuts during a pivotal scene between Jon and his girlfriend is distracting, it makes it quite hard for me to concentrate on the story and to invest myself emotionally in the characters. In the third act he gets even more creative, most notably the rousing Moon Dance diner musical number. Again it very much looks and feel like I’m watching a theatrical production. I’m not saying it’s bad necessarily, but it doesn’t translate to immersive storytelling.
The less bombastic number is the most moving to me… Garfield’s piano solo in the park is particularly memorable and heartfelt. I’ve been a longtime admirer since I saw him in Boy A over a decade ago, and this surely is his career best performance. What a nice surprise that this talented actor can sing too! Apparently he spent a year training his vocals and it shows.
As for the supporting cast, Robin de Jesus as Larson’s supportive best friend Michael is fantastic, he provides the biggest emotional beats of the film. His duet Real Life? with Garfield had me bawling. Alexandra Shipp is lovely as Larson’s girlfriend, and it’s fun seeing Judith Light here too as Larson’s no-nonsense agent.
All the bits involving Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) is especially emotional since he just passed away recently. I later learned that Sondheim’s own voice made a cameo in the film, which got me teary eyed as I remembered it. Every artist could use an encouragement like he did for Larson, so that was incredibly inspiring.
What I like best is how Miranda shows that the struggle is real for artists like Larson who had to juggle day jobs and simply surviving, while trying to get his art out to the world. Even when he gets a few people to believe in him, it was still something insurmountable to accomplish… at the cost of his relationships with his best friend and girlfriend.
The ending shows a title card that Larson died suddenly on the night of RENT previews at the tender age of 35, which is just so tragic. Though RENT is not exactly my favorite musical, I think the social commentary makes is quite unique. The fact that the story highlights artists affected by the AIDS epidemic, it’s a bit eerie that this film is released during a pandemic.
Overall I enjoyed the film despite my qualms about Miranda’s directing style. The inherently theatrical approach and editing style gets in the way a bit of the story, so tick, tick…BOOM! is far from being my favorite musicals. Still, I’m glad I saw it and Garfield’s astounding performance alone made this well worth a watch.
Have you seen Tick, Tick … Boom!? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!