CALLERI: ‘tick, tick… BOOM!’ is a show biz tale as wise as good theater itself

Andrew Garfield stars as a Broadway hopeful struggling to get recognized. (Netflix)

Movie musicals are a wonderful example of allowing the suspension of disbelief to overtake one’s imagination and simply let the production numbers in front of you play themselves out.

On the silver screen, we’ve been entertained by placard-toting union members singing for a pay raise in the delightful “The Pajama Game,” an upside-down Fred Astaire tap dancing on a ceiling in the magical “Royal Wedding,” and 300 swimming and singing dancers perfectly choreographed by Busby Berkeley in “Footlight Parade.” These and many other joyous scenes in films throughout the years figuratively told moviegoers to forget their troubles and come on, get happy.

There’s a reason musicals lifted the spirits of Americans during the Great Depression. A few seconds of smiling can do wonders for the soul.

Behind all musicals meant for theater or film are passionate creative people, those remarkably imaginative composers and librettists, some of them doing double duty. Ideas for Broadway shows might start with a dream, which leads to a concept, which eventually spells success.

One such extraordinarily talented man was Jonathan Larson, who never got to see “Rent,” his signature masterwork, in front of an audience. He died 10 days shy of his 36th birthday the morning of the first off-Broadway preview for the show in 1996. “Rent” would soon move to Broadway and run 12 years.

The new movie “tick, tick… Boom!,” which is available on Netflix, takes us back to the period of Larson’s life when success was not a given. We’re watching him years before “Rent.” He’s on the cusp of turning 30, working at the Moondance Diner, and struggling to get attention for a dystopian science-fiction rock musical he’s written and calls “Superbia.”

The film, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and written by Steven Levenson, blends two aspects of Larson’s “Superbia.” One is his solo staged version of the musical (with a back-up band). The other is a showcase being performed (eager young Broadway hopefuls are participating) with the goal of potential backers hearing the songs and wanting to produce the show in New York City. They include his hero, the legendary Stephen Sondheim (a quiet presence nicely played by Bradley Whitford), who scored big before he was 30. Larson sees that fact as an important benchmark.

The movie presents Larson as both a theatrical personality and his own muse. He has a charming ego, and he’s fond of telling people he’s going to be a major force on Broadway. Larson does it with a straight face and without irony. I enjoyed and appreciated his confidence. This gives the film some sweet comedy, and importantly, you’re not laughing at Larson, you’re laughing with him. How big is his ego? Well, after all, his melodious sci-fi effort is autobiographical. However, is it any good?

The story’s drama comes from the need for him to write an important song for his musical. Something that would thrill the members of the audience watching it and carry them through to the end of the story he wants to tell. He has the composer’s equivalent of writer’s block. The notes aren’t flowing.

All the scraps of phrases for possible lyrics that he jots down in his notebook seem lost somewhere in a vast creative void. He struggles to find the right mix of words and music

What’s essential here is that the actor playing Larson has to present him as both an unstoppable bundle of energy and a person moviegoers will find extremely likable.

In Andrew Garfield, director Miranda has found the perfect actor to play the young musical artist. Garfield brings an exuberance that is infectious and a determination that is sympathetic. His performance is superb. He’s got the jittery personality and the passion to succeed. Unpaid bills and workshop rehearsals are part of the ladder to making it. Garfield’s Larson climbs that ladder without missing a step.

When the stressed-out Larson has to relax, he swims in a YMCA pool. There’s one lovely moment when the tiles at the bottom of the pool turn into sheet music. His girlfriend Susan (a magnetic Alexandra Shipp) is supportive, but cracks in the relationship begin to form – she’s ready to toss Manhattan aside like a hat into the wind. His long-time best friend Michael (a flawless Robin de Jesus) has left acting for advertising. Even their bond starts to weaken – he thinks Jon should come work for his firm.

Larson’s plain-talking agent Rosa (a glorious Judith Light) questions the science-fiction paradox and tells him to write more about what he knows, which, of course, he did with “Rent.” Vanessa Hudgens as the inspirational Karessa has her magical musical moment to shine.

“tick, tick… BOOM!” has some of the elements that made “Rent” so powerful, including the overriding push to make one’s life meaningful and the camaraderie of like-minded young people.

What’s telling about this entertaining film is that Miranda lets us know that Larson is much more than a struggling boy wonder. If anyone could possibly understand and interpret the genius of a young man like Jonathan, it would be another boy wonder like Lin-Manuel.

In a movie in which the central character can be called the personification of a specific kind of Broadway musical, you want songs well-sung. You get them because an enthusiastic Garfield truly delivers.

And, if you want a little old-fashioned razzle-dazzle, there’s a foot-tapping production number at the diner to delight you. Theater aficionados will recognize a delicious banquet of participating Broadway superstars. I’ll keep their identities a secret, but trust me, it is impressive.

“tick, tick… BOOM!” isn’t just for fans of musicals. It transcends stereotypes. Who doesn’t care about rooting for the underdog?

   

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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