Jonathan Larson is most famous for being the composer, playwright, and lyricist for the musical Rent. He tragically passed away from an undiagnosed heart condition the day of its off-broadway debut. It is difficult to overstate how much of a game changer Rent was. It redefined what stories musicals could tell, and what they could sound like.
Here’s the thing, though: Rent is also bad. It sounds paradoxical, I know, but it really is a chore to get through. The big hit from the show- “Seasons of Love”- is the most overplayed, cheesy song in the entire canon of American theater, and every single character having the exact same problem is just terrible writing. It’s unfortunate that the show is much more interesting to talk about as a piece of theatrical canon than it is to watch/listen to.
It’s this disdain for the show that made me groan when I saw a trailer for a Jonathan Larson musical biopic on Netflix. I was initially planning on skipping this entirely, until I realized that it’s primarily based on his autobiographical musical written long before Rent. After giving it a shot, I am delighted to report that the film has very little to do with Rent, and everything to do with the much more interesting context surrounding it, and how it affected the visionary who created it.
The actual plot of the film is fairly straightforward. Larson grapples with his personal woes as he tries to get his original musical produced. The plot and characters are surprisingly compelling for a film of this nature, and there actually is quite a bit to spoil if you’re interested in seeing it, so to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at this:
The plot does an excellent job of contextualizing Rent. You can see how specific events and people in his life inspired the show in several different ways. This will, of course, become obvious once you watch it, but it really is something you should see for yourself.
The plot is propped up by writing and acting that’s serviceable, though it should be noted how excellently Andrew Garfield is hamming it up as Larson himself. This probably won’t make sense to many, but the best way I can describe this performance is a theater kid version of the Joker. It’s a specific kind of eccentricity that is delightful all the way through.
The direction is also surprisingly good. Lin-Manuel Miranda can be read as a spiritual successor to Larson, both were hyped up to be the next visionary maestro in the world of musical theater after creating groundbreaking work (except Hamilton is actually good), and, oddly enough, both were in their early thirties when these projects were created. He was a fitting choice to lead the effort of immortalizing Larson in this way, and he shows off some competent filmmaking. I was particularly struck by the camera work during the bigger musical setpieces, which added the perfect level of dynamic intensity for each given moment. Miranda also seemed to have a solid command over the visual effects here. They were used sparingly and lacked a bit of polish, but they absolutely enhanced every scene they were in.
All of this is superfluous, really, to the reason you watch a musical. I’m extremely conflicted on the music here. The songs show occasional bursts of genius, with equally frequent fits of blandness. In this case, the better songs bookend the whole experience.
The opener, “30/90,” perfectly introduces the film’s major theme (the pitfalls of aging), and expertly plays around with some of the anxieties of the main character; “years are getting shorter, lines on your face are getting longer…friends are getting fatter, hairs on your head are getting thinner…can’t fight it, like city hall.” This is absolutely a personal point, but these are issues I find myself fascinated with in my own life, and so the whole film resonated with me emotionally.
This major theme and the overall excellent lyricism continue in “BoHo Days,” a charming little a cappella tune that details the bohemian lifestyle of Larson and his artist friends.
The eleven o’clock number, as us theater kids call it, is the rich ballad “Come to Your Senses.” This duet between Alexandra Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens (yes, that Vanessa Hudgens) creatively ties together both the themes of the film, and the themes of the musical-within-a-musical, Superbia; “love is passe in this day and age…it’s cruel to be cold, nothing lasts anymore. Love is disposable, this is the shape of things we can not ignore.”
The tragic double-whammy of “Real Life” and “Why” elevate the whole affair to a level of maturity that’s not common in musicals. Not much to say about these, other than that you should mentally prepare yourself for the admittedly obvious twist that accompanies these tracks.
Finally, we get to my personal favorite song, the closing track “Louder Than Words.” The prose here comes mostly in the form of questions that Larson asks himself, his friends, and the audience; “Why should we blaze a trail, when the well-worn path seems safe and so inviting? How, as we travel, can we see the dismay, and keep from fighting? Why do we follow leaders who never lead? Why does it take catastrophe to start a revolution?”
I could gush about every line in this song, but I’ll leave you with the most poignant lyric in the whole movie; “Cages or wings, which do you prefer? Ask the birds.”
The only true negative aspect of tick, tick….BOOM! is the small handful of songs that didn’t quite hit the mark. “Swimming” is just cliche after cliche, barely saved by the admittedly gripping visual trick the film exhibits while the song plays out. The ceramic tiles of the swimming pool transforming into sheet music wasn’t exactly high art, but it did get a smile out of me. And Miranda couldn’t help himself, inserting the annoying rap song “Play Game”, early in the tracklist. Larson was smart to cut this song in the original musical, and it’s a shame to see a good decision backtracked in this manner. It’s only a short interlude, but it clearly thinks it’s way, way more clever than it actually is.
And “Sunday” is a neat set piece, filling the diner Larson works at with a mix of broadway legends, including Miranda himself. Strangely, it’s completely ruined by a single moment at the end, as Garfield holds the grossest note I’ve ever heard in a musical. He sounds like a congested frog, and it’s really worth listening to yourself. At least I laughed?
The real stinker here is “Therapy,” with Jon and his girlfriend Karessa exchanging cliche millennial relationship drama aphorisms through this absolutely disgusting vocoder/autotune…thing. This, combined with the basic lyrics and the country-rock instrumental gives the song a strangely preschool sing-along vibe.
None of these are really that bad, and they’re all pretty easy to stomach when coupled together with the otherwise excellent movie surrounding them.
Now, if you’re not a theater person, I can imagine how this wouldn’t be to your liking. It may be a bit difficult to really connect with something so niche at this point.
But if you are a theater person, or even enjoy the medium a little bit, then I can not recommend this enough. It’s a love letter to not only the art form, but one of the most essential figures in its recent history.