Movie Review ~ tick, tick…BOOM!

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The Facts:

Synopsis: On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship, and the pressures to create something great before time runs out.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, MJ Rodriguez, Richard Kind, Judith Light, Ben Ross

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  As a life-long RENThead and a true RENT-aholic*, I was already quite familiar with the 2001 off-Broadway production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! before it was made into a Netflix movie by musical theater Swiss Army Man Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I was also aware that Miranda had starred in a smaller concert version of the show which seemed like a natural fit for him.  Miranda, the multiple award-winning composer/lyricist behind In the Heights and the behemoth known as Hamilton was greatly influenced by RENT’s late composer, and the two have lead strikingly similar career paths.  It’s not hard to see how Larson might have had the same type of trajectory as Miranda has rightfully enjoyed had he not passed away so tragically at age 35. 

I had reached a bit of a Miranda saturation point when this film was announced and if I’m being really real with you (like, really really real), tick, tick…BOOM!! always felt like a minor cash-in on RENT’s juggernaut rocket ship took off.  What started as a solo show by Larson was adapted into a one-act play that was a small success off-Broadway but nothing on the scale that RENT had.  It went on to do quite well regionally but it served more to show that Larson was a good songwriter from the start…but that even good songwriters wrote some clunkers at the beginning as well.  The impending arrival of the movie didn’t set off any major bells or whistles to me because it wasn’t one I felt strongly about either way.

So, take it from that perspective as I write that in the days since I’ve seen tick, tick…BOOM! I’ve been unable to get it out of my head, and not just the music.  The performances given by the cast Miranda has assembled and what the director has brought to the screen surpasses anything that had been put onstage before.  Screenwriter Steven Levenson bounces back from the disastrously bad adaptation of Dear Evan Hanson with a positively inspired take on how to further mold what was once a one-man show.  Miranda takes all of these elements and then puts a Broadway polish on it all, the cherry on the top of what is already a musical theater fan’s starry-eyed dream come true.

While the 2001 stage version wasn’t as direct, the movie layers the real-life story of Larson’s life as a struggling artist over the existing script and it amazingly works.  I wasn’t sure at first how much I wanted to see Larson’s life essentially made into a musical, an existing musical even, but everyone involved treats it with such respect, grace, and dignity that it doesn’t come off as either too serious or overly sentimental.  This is sincere moviemaking through and through and if it had leaned in either direction too far it would have collapsed in on itself.  Levenson’s screenplay is sturdy enough to hold together.

The glue, or cement rather, that solidifies it though is Andrew Garfield’s mesmerizing performance as Jonathan in what is without a doubt career-best work for the actor.  Put aside the fantastic dramatics he brings to the more emotional side of the character but from all the documentaries, books, film clips, etc. I’ve seen over the years in conjunction with RENT, Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) has Larson the person down to an eerie “T”.  He looks like the composer and easily conveys the charm everyone that knew him always speaks of.  And when he’s not speaking, his singing is first rate.  All the singing in the film is soaring and, in another extremely smart move, Miranda switches between Garfield as Larson performing the show with an onstage cast (including Bad Boys for Life’s Vanessa Hudgens and Broadway powerhouse leading man Joshua Henry, Winter’s Tale) and what are often their “real-life” (movie-wise) counterparts, Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) as girlfriend Susan and Robin de Jesus (The Boys in the Band) as Michael.

Much of the film (and the play) is leading to Larson’s composition of “the song”, a powerhouse ballad he’s been trying to create for his new show.  Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (played by The Cabin in the Woods’s Bradley Whitford sometimes and the real man himself on voicemails) encouraged Larson to keep writing and, if you believe the musical, it’s his advice that kept him searching for this major movie moment.  It’s very much worth waiting for and what existed onstage as a satisfying 11 o’clock number for an actress turns into something far more surprising here.  Then there’s even more movie to come.  I won’t spoil it but Miranda and company continue to blur the lines between what is the solo show, the musical, and the movie musical in clever ways throughout. 

Sure, the musical retains at least one of the songs that fails pretty spectacularly (mostly because it sounds achingly like the title song from RENT) but then again you have to remember this was written first.  Of all the movie musicals that have been released lately, this might be my absolute favorite in terms of overall success in transition from stage to screen.  It’s hard to expand these worlds and while In the Heights worked wonders with its transition, what Levenson and Miranda have accomplished here with tick, tick…BOOM! is sort of amazing.  The show now lives on in another completely new form separate from the original creation by Larson and the updated version reconstituted after his Pulitzer Prize winning musical became a revolutionary touchstone.  I would never be so bold as to make a statement like “Jonathan Larson would have loved this.” but I can say that as someone that was so moved (and changed) by the work that Larson has put forth and a fan of his for decades, this was a monumental undertaking with an exceptional execution.  Do not miss this one.

*What’s the difference between a RENThead and a RENT-aholic?  Well, RENTheads are fans of the show that have seen it more than five times and have won the lottery to sit in the front two rows at least once.  RENT-aholics have traveled across more than two state lines to see the show from any vantage point…and yes, I’m certified as both…and not just in NYC!

Movie Review ~ Before You Know It


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pair of sisters find out the mother they thought was dead is alive and starring on a soap opera.

Stars: Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Alec Baldwin, Mike Colter, Mandy Patinkin

Director: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Once you’ve been to New York City and done all the touristy things, that’s when the real adventure starts. Only then can you truly get to the heart of the city and explore the neighborhoods to find hidden gems that are off the beaten path. Restaurants, clothing stores, art galleries, and little theaters are all over the place just waiting to be discovered. Back in the day, the films of Woody Allen that were set in the Big Apple had a way with making good use out of these little-seen corners of a mostly familiar city.

It’s probably not the best comparison to make at this time or might not be exactly the kind of praise the writers and director of Before You Know It would love to hear but there’s a Woody Allen-esque quality to this quirky comedy. It would be easy to fathom Allen conjuring up this NYC set tale on his typewriter, assembling his cast drawn from a stable of familiar faces, and garnering praise for its astute look at familial relationships that break down at the most inconvenient times. Yet this isn’t another offering from that divisive director but the product of two women that wrote, directed, and star in the film. Being so interwoven into the framework of the movie can, at times, be the kiss of death for those that take on multiple roles on a film production but that’s not the case here – in fact, it makes the movie richer.

Living above their tiny off-off-off Broadway theater, sisters Jackie (Jen Tullock) and Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt) have taken on their responsibilities to keep the operation afloat. Free-spirit actress Jackie takes to the stage and supplants that work with other odd jobs on the side while her more serious younger sister tends to the business side and directs. Their father, Mel (Mandy Patinkin), who raised them on his own after their mother died, is a former Broadway actor turned playwright that’s just earned a prestigious fellowship, one that will help produce a long gestating play the family has been working on together. Mel abhors the corporatization of the theater and doesn’t do much to ingratiate himself with his new benefactors…so when he suddenly passes away and leaves the sisters with mounting debts and an unfinished play they aren’t in the mood for more surprises.

A visit to their lawyer to hear the reading of their father’s will reveals a whopper, though. The mother they had been told passed away is actually very much alive is the sole owner of the theater…and she’s closer than they might have guessed.  Leaving her family all those years ago to pursue her dreams of stardom, Sherrell (Judith Light, Amazon’s Transparent, making a rare but welcome appearance in a feature film) is a famous actress on a popular soap opera that’s feeling the sting of ageism at work. When her daughters sneak onto her set and make a surprise appearance, it isn’t exactly the happy reunion any of them had imagine.  As they get reacquainted with a woman they don’t know and pretty much abandoned them for a different life, all three women are forced to take a hard look at their choices in the past and plans for the future.

Directed by Utt and written by Utt and Tullock, the women do more than just play on their strengths and fashion their movie around several highlighting moments. Jackie and Rachel both have their own hang-ups that get some attention but the spotlight is shared with the supporting cast as well. Having an affair with her daughter’s new therapist (played in brief cameo by Alec Baldwin, Still Alice), Jackie is used to taking the backseat to the stronger personalities she surrounds herself with. At the same time, without being able to find a work/life balance, Rachel is unable to maintain a steady relationship with any woman she finds interesting. When they meet their long-lost mother, instead of filling a gap they’ve been missing they find maybe her taking off wasn’t such a bad thing.

The trickiest role is given to the most interesting actor and Light steps up to the plate and hits a home run. Obviously drawing from her years starring in the One Life to Live, Light’s soap diva wants to be taken seriously but doesn’t want to look bad doing it. She’s OK if they make her an evil twin…just not an “ugly” one. Light makes the character brittle but not broken, vain but not vapid.  I thought I knew where her character was headed but was surprised at the little things Light does along the way to keep us interested. When Rachel offers to rewrite some of the dialogue her mom finds beneath her, they bond in a way neither expect…leading to drama between the sisters and their newly acquired parent.

There’s some extraneous storytelling when the action shifts from the sisters and Sherrell to Jackie’s daughter being befriended by an accountant (Mike Coulter, Girls Trip), who shows up to do the books. It’s the only askance bit of narrative I found in the film but it eventually finds a cohesive way into the story Utt and Tullock wrap up nicely by the end. Though writing as two there’s the feeling of a single voice in the screenplay and that helps keep the film buoyant, with laughs in unexpected places and honest bits of drama along the way.