Netflix have had some real big hitters again this year. Building on being the most successful studio at April’s Oscars, winning seven statuettes from a very impressive thirty six nominations, they have continued to release a series of exclusive movies with big name cast and prestige directors. I know that not all of these will be featured in the awards shows in the Spring but they’ve debuted The Harder They Fall, News of the World, Red Notice, The Dig, Army of the Dead, Passing, The Woman in the Window, Malcom & Marie and Moxie from such celebrated individuals as Idris Elba, Amy Adams, Zack Snyder, Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass, Ralph Fiennes, Cary Mulligan, Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Amy Poehler, Gal Gadot, Tessa Thompson and Zendaya. Even with this though tick, tick… Boom! is still one of their biggest coups because this is the directorial film debut of theatre superstar (and cartoon songwriter) Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Sticking in his usual ballpark but presenting someone else’s musical rather than his own, Miranda has adapted the first work of Rent creator Jonathan Larson. tick, tick… Boom! was Larson’s Fleabag, starting as a one person show, receiving much acclaim before being developed into something for a wider audience and then leading to bigger budgeted projects. The show features the lead, Larson himself originally, telling the largely autobiographical story of being a struggling writer and dealing with the drama in his and his friend’s lives. This film realises the potential of this idea and extends to where it can and should go by keeping the monologue and some of the songs in the theatrical environment as Larson performs the show, but also playing out the anecdotes and other tunes cinematically. With Larson no longer being with us, now the lead is Andrew Garfield who is playing the real Jonathan Larson playing the fictionalised Jonathan Larson.
Having read some mixed reviews of this movie, I was not sure that I’d like it but actually I really did. Larson as a character can be a little conceited and borderline insufferable on occasion but Garfield and Miranda keep him likeable. He and his friends are all theatre loveys but having studied drama at university, I built up a tolerance and even some affection for these types of people a long time ago. (I don’t think I am one but would I even know?) Miranda by all accounts is a big fan of Larson and you can hear how the songs have influenced him. Like in Hamilton, no amount of key changes or over laying melodies are too much but the tunes are catchy and enthusiastically and skilfully performed. The staging of one song, Sunday, is a particular treat. This is sung by Garfield and the ‘Moondance Diner Ensemble’ many of who you’ll recognise even if you are only a casual fan of American musical theatre.
What surprised me most though is how effectively Lin-Manuel Miranda uses the grammar of film. He’s been around a camera or two in the past but he is from a stage background, particularly in his own ventures, and I had feared his lens may be a little static. This isn’t the case though and in his hands the show’s transfer to screen is really well managed. More so perhaps that John Chu’s version of Miranda’s In the Heights from earlier this year.
With it’s mix of realism and sung though dialogue tick, tick… BOOM! does not really feel like any other screen musical which is appropriate as Hamilton didn’t really feel like any other staged one. Once again Miranda has given us something alternative in his favoured arena but with this successful foray into film directing, it could also stand as the start of him successfully moving into areas he has never worked in before, and Netflix scooped it
The Ripley Factor:
There are a number of key women in the cast; Vanessa Hudgens as his lead female vocalist, MJ Rodriguez as his boss at the diner, Judith Light as his agent (apparently channeling Estelle, Joey’s agent in Friends) and most significantly Alexandra Shipp as his girlfriend Susan. All of them are essentially there in service to the male protagonist though. This said, so is every other character on screen so it can be argued that in this case it isn’t a gender thing.