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Tick, Tick…Boom!

Readying himself for a brunch time performance on his invisible piano

Synopsis: A composer tries to get his latest musical onstage. (Streaming on Netflix)

The movie’s title, tick,tick,…Boom! has nothing to do with explosives. Rather, it’s the title of a one-person show that composer Jonathan Larson wrote and performed in 1990 before his huge success on Broadway with Rent (1996- 2008).  It’s also the title of a movie about the composer, focusing on him trying to finish writing his musical Superbia and get it financed and staged.

I mention this because I didn’t know about Larson’s work previous to Rent, so I was like, what’s happening? when the film starts with Andrew Garfield onstage explaining his tribulations as a struggling young composer and then belting out a song. The film keeps cutting back to this and for about a half an hour I was wondering if this was a fantasy sequence meant to explain to us what happened to Larson when he first moved to NYC. No, it’s his show tick, tick…Boom!

If you are expecting to see Andrew Garfield noodling away at a keyboard and crooning parts of Rent tunes, you will be disappointed. Instead, AG as Larson is piecing together Superbia. In fact, we see him working feverishly to come up with one more song for the show–a real showstopper. I was expecting maybe something as good as “Falling Slowly” from Once or “Let It Go” from Frozen. My partner said that this was not a reasonable expectation.

TTB’s score and songs are all Larson’s work; archived music, stand-alone songs and tunes from Superbia. I suspect that musical theater aficionados will love the songs. And for people who don’t avidly follow musical theater? Uh…Rent’s smash hits are more accessible.

Sad that no one has complimented him on his new scarf

The good news is that you don’t have to love musical theater to enjoy director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s TTB. While the movie is, of course, a tribute to Jonathan Larson, it’s also a fast-paced paean to creativity in the young artist. Especially young artists looking to make a career in music. It seems that kids who aspire to be  Broadway/West End stars will find the movie inspiring. So, if they were already slacking on the academics, parents can expect more of that after seeing TTB.

Andrew Garfield gives a compelling performance, only showing off when he’s performing TTB onstage. Otherwise, he believably telegraphs hopes and disappointments with nuance. Well, there is one crying scene that goes on for a while; he realizes he’s been selfish because of his workaholism.

Garfield shows us the relentless work that Larson put into composing, only breaking from his work to waiter at the Moondance Diner in SoHo. In a fantasy sequence we see him at a busy brunch where he performs the song ‘Sunday.’ This number, I’m sure, has musical theater nerds screeching with delight as the camera pans a bevy of Broadway stars as customers, including Adam Pascal & Daphne Rubin-Vega from Rent, Phillipa Soo & Renee Elise Goldberry from Hamilton, Andre de Shields (Hadestown) and Chita Rivera (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Be on the lookout for Lin-Manuel too. It’s a veritable Where’s Wally? Great White Way version.

Screenwriter Steven Levenson (Best Book of a Musical Tony-award winner for Dear Evan Hansen) takes a few liberties to emphasize and simplify what was going on with Larson’s relationships. His girlfriend and former roommate are composite characters who draw on his past. In TTB, Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is Larson’s dancer girlfriend whom he puts off for nearly the entire movie, telling her he’s too busy with Superbia to talk about their relationship. Don’t worry, things will get untangled later with a song.

Larson’s good friend and former roommate, Michael (Robin de Jesus) is a gay man who left acting to work in advertising. Periodically in the film, the AIDS crisis is referred to and the characters lament the loss and illnesses of friends that the artistic community is experiencing.

One of the real-life characters who looms large in TTB is the legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, famous for West Side Story, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, etcetera… Sondheim was a hero and mentor to Larson, providing him encouragement and notes on his work. Here is he portrayed by Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) with the appropriate amount of gravitas and modest geniality. In any scene where he sneaks in to watch a preview, all of the characters’ Broadway Giant detectors go off and an excited buzz moves through the crowd.

On one occasion, our young composer friend is having a bad day, but then picks up a phone message from Sondheim in which this Living God of Musical Theater tells him–for what it’s worth– that he thinks Larson has a future and if he’s interested, he could give him some feedback on his work.  No, Steve! I’m not interested in your opinion!    Lol, as if!

You’ll find movie musicals with better soundtracks, but Garfield’s performance really stands out. Larson’s sister, Julie, called his depiction “lovely and eerie at times.”  Garfield brings excitement to the screen as he works on songs; whether he’s riding the subway while working on lyrics or swimming laps with musical notes coursing through his head.

His tiffs with friends and lovers are kind of clichéd, but AG’s sincerity is without question. In fact, he’s so good that I’m afraid he’ll get a slew of bio pic offers. Well, I guess I’d watch him as a young Sondheim… but the Michael Bolton story is okay only if none of his music is included.

Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:

Grade:   B

Cut to the Chase: Best enjoyed by musical theater fans…or Andrew Garfield fans. You’re in luck w TTB if you are both.

Humor Highlight:  After running through Central Park at night singing–as one does– our hero finds a piano and plays a tune. Tourists should note that there are not actually 24 hr piano installments around the park.

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