Warning: The following contains spoilers for all of Tick, Tick... Boom! Read at your own risk.
I had planned on doing a review of Tick, Tick... Boom! for the Krewe of Best Tea over on the Ko-Fi Memberships for this site (cough Shameless Plug cough). Basically I figured I’d watch the movie, which I was intending to do anyway, and then share a few thoughts on if it was a worthwhile and then go on about my day.
Then I watched the freaking thing and, well, you know me and musical theater.
Here’s the thing though: I’m not going to talk about the movie itself so much. I mean I will but the focus here is going to be more contextual. It’s going to be a bit like when I talked about In the Heights where yes, we covered the film but we also talked about the history of the show and where it fit in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s career (as well as talking about dance because you can’t get me to shut up about dance).
If we keep the tradition of shorthand reviews in the intro, though, I would rate Tick, Tick... Boom! three stars. Which is my system stolen from Roger Ebert where three stars means if you like this sort of thing then this is the sort of thing you’ll like. In other words if you like musicals you will like this movie. If you don’t like musicals you might still like this movie but don’t feel like you’re required to put it on a must watch list.
(In contrast there’s a movie like The Harder They Fall which would get a four star rating, meaning that even if you don’t like Westerns you’re still probably going to like that film. But I talk about that more in a review I actually did do for Ko-Fi members.)
I’m realizing I should probably come up with my own rating system since I keep using Roger Ebert’s which first up requires me to explain each time that I’m using his system. Plus three vs four stars carries the implication that a three star movie is lesser somehow which isn’t necessarily the case. Which does, amazingly, bring us back to Tick, Tick... Boom!
Because the thing with Tick, Tick... Boom! is that this is a movie made for a very specific audience, namely people who love theater. I’m not even narrowing it down to people who love Jonathan Larson and I will get to explaining why in a sec. But if you love theater, if you love the concept of it and the history of it this is a movie made in honor of everything that you adore.
And, to that end, it is a very good movie for that audience. I would even say it’s an excellent movie for that audience because it is a wonderful love letter to and about theater. If you don’t care about theater it’s not a bad movie. And blessedly it’s not a movie which requires recognizing a thousand and one Easter eggs in order to understand the story or even know that a story is happening. You could watch this film knowing nothing more than it’s about some dude trying to create a musical and, assuming you don’t hate movies with singing in them, not feel like you wasted your time.
So in that three star realm if you like this sort of thing then this is a great movie and if you don’t like this sort of thing it’s not a bad one. Hence why I need a whole new system and I welcome any suggestions you all may have from the peanut gallery on what words I should use for it.
Bringing this back to Tick, Tick... Boom! - which I’m going to shorten to TTB in a sec I swear - this then gets into why a short review doesn’t really work. Because you’ve got to talk about the story in and of itself, how it came together (which is the Lin-Manuel Miranda of it all), and of course address Andrew Garfield.
So let’s get into it.
Jonathan Larson, Rent, and Why Should We Care About Tick, Tick... Boom!
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like Rent.
I know, I know. I should turn in my so-called theater nerd cred right now, right?
Look, here’s the thing. Though I am of the age (younger than Jonathan Larson but older than Lin-Manuel Miranda) where Rent should’ve been my jam it did nothing for me.
I know it did amazing things for other people! Not the least of which is Lin himself and thank God for it! I’m happy for everyone who saw Rent and loved it! But no me gusta, as they say.
Part of this is what I like to call The Little Mermaid problem, which is that when you watch it as a kid you’re like yeah! Ariel is sixteen years old! Get off her back!
And then you watch The Little Mermaid again as an adult and you’re like oh my god Ariel at sixteen you are an infant shut the entire hell up and go to your room.
Rent has the same problem for me. At a certain point you are all aboard team bohemia and creativity and how dare Benny be such a square and then later you’re like oh my fucking god you are such assholes taking advantage of your friend who’s been letting you live rent free in the building for over a year out of some god tier level patience which absolutely none of you have earned so SHUT UP!
I’m an old soul. I was on the second half of that even when I should’ve been young enough to be on the first one.
On top of that, I’m sorry, but I don’t think Jonathan Larson is very gifted lyrically. There are songs of his I like, absolutely. But for me a huge swath of his repertoire falls into I’m 14 and this is deep territory. (”Cages or wings? Which do you prefer? Ask the birds.” should pretty much be the only evidence I need to provide to prove this, frankly.)
So while I really am genuinely happy for people for whom Rent was life changing and deeply meaningful, for me it’s a lot of squirming uncomfortably in my chair and going aww, good for you for doing math. I didn’t need to spend the money to hear you sing about how one night you got stoned and did something other than try to write “BOOBS” on a calculator but I’m glad you had fun.
However! While I do not like Rent as a musical I do like Rent the musical. And the reason why is that Rent helped Broadway.
You see, Broadway has a history of ebbing and flowing when it comes to its own survival. This is what happens when you are a luxury business which is hugely dependent on out of towners to survive. As Rosa herself points out at the end of TTB, a big consideration for a Broadway show is if tourists are going to shell out money to see it. When the economy falters, when people don’t have money to travel or spend, Broadway starts to shut down.
And if you’ll indulge me a relevant digression here the thing about Broadway is that it is a huge business. A lot of people think Broadway and only picture the theater: the actors, the orchestra, the ushers, the ticket takers. They don’t realize that Broadway shows aren’t like movies where you make them and you’re done and everyone moves on with their life. Costumes have to be made and remade. Sets have to be fixed. Light and sound systems need to be maintained. New musicians and cast members need to be brought up to speed, and so on. (And this is to say nothing of all the businesses which rely on Broadway for their own livelihoods, such as hotels and restaurants to feed and house those tourists, nor is it touching on all the touring companies of Broadway shows which do all this but around the country).
Which gets us into the impact that the covid pandemic has had on Broadway and I’ll touch on this more in a bit. But point being when Broadway’s lights start to dim this isn’t unfortunate just because there aren’t as many musicals and plays anymore. It represents thousands upon thousands of people being put out of work.
Which is why, when certain shows come along, it’s a big fucking deal. Because shows that hit the cultural zeitgeist for whatever reason bring attention back to Broadway and, quite literally, save it. Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, The Producers, The Lion King, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, Hamilton, and yup, our pal Rent are among the shows that get that credit. Rising tides raise all boats, basically, and I’ll talk more about this when I get into why Lin was a good choice to direct this movie.
So while Rent as a musical didn’t work for me I do love and appreciate Rent for existing because not only did it inspire folks like Lin-Manuel Miranda to go into Broadway, it helped keep Broadway alive for a few more years until the next big musical came along.
(And for the record I will say it hurts me to include Lion King on that list because, unlike the others, it’s not an original property and obviously having Disney money backing you up puts you at an advantage the other shows didn’t have. However 1) you cannot deny the financial impact Lion King had on Broadway. I mean they nearly opened a second fucking theater for that thing because so many people wanted to see it when it opened and 2) Julie Taymor’s work bringing the story to life via puppets so was so freaking beautiful that I genuinely think Lion King is on a whole other level as a Broadway show than any other Disney property to ever hit the stage.)
Point being, no matter whether or not you like the music in Rent if you like Broadway as a concept then you are grateful to Rent because it’s one of the shows that helped keep Broadway alive.
Bringing this back to TTB, this ties into why I said earlier that you don’t have to be a fan of Jonathan Larson or his work in order to appreciate the movie. Because yes, TTB is about Jonathan - who is also an asshole, by the way. I mean even when you allow for how this is a fictionalized version of his life the dude still wrote and publicly performed a song which was basically “Should a guy give up his immense gift and destiny as a creative genius in order to totally sell out like his loser friends who couldn’t hack it anyway not that I’m talking about you guys who are my actual friends because the names are using are like totally different from yours, I swear.” Dude must’ve been fucking exhausting to spend time with for more than five minutes, I swear to Christ.
But! Point being TTB isn’t about lionizing Jonathan Larson. Yes, appreciating that he existed and went on to create Rent, but at the same time even if you don’t know Jonathan Larson from Jonathan Taylor Thomas you can still watch this movie as the story of what it’s like being a creative person trying to do something with your creativity. And if you as an audience member sit there going huh, our protagonist is kind of a douchebag then that’s okay because the movie doesn’t shy away from that too. There’s a scene of Michael calling Jonathan out on his privilege, for example, that had me cheering Michael on. To say nothing of when Jonathan’s girlfriend Susan calls him out on his bullshit as well.
What TTB does do, however, is pay homage to the creative process which gives us Broadway. And that’s also where Jonathan Larson and Rent fall in very nicely as well. You don’t have to like him personally or Rent personally but if you love Broadway as a concept then this movie fits perfectly into your interests because that’s actually what it’s about.
Which segues us nicely into why Lin was the best director for this film.
Why Lin-Manuel Miranda Was The Best Choice to Direct Tick, Tick... Boom!
To talk about Lin-Manuel Miranda as a director we’ve got to talk about Lin-Manuel Miranda as a creative and as a member of Broadway because you can’t separate the two.
To be clear, at no point am I saying that Lin is perfect or without flaws. With the success of Encanto we’re seeing another round of backlash towards Lin which, if you’ll allow me to digress another moment, annoys the shit out of me because the man has flaws but not the ones people keep bitching about!
Like if you want to talk about the issues with the history in Hamilton we can do that but if you’re doing a general “Wahh, it treats Alexander Hamilton like a saint!” when 1) the second act exists and 2) there’s actual issues with the history Lin elided to tell that story we’re gonna have a problem. (Case in point, Cato Howe, who is the person who actually did the fucking spying for Hercules Mulligan and was, yanno, a man of color enslaved by Hercules but who was totally erased in the story because Hercules Mulligan sounded like a cool name. I mean come on.)
(And this isn’t even getting into how there were entire populations of people living on this continent who might have some opinions of depicting colonizers as “immigrants.” I’m just saying.)
Anyway! Lin has flaws and I’m not denying that. But his flaws and weaknesses as a storyteller don’t negate that he is a genius when it comes to crafting lyrics and using them to tell stories. Some of his attempts at this are stronger than others, sure, but the talent is undeniable.
Which brings me to the next critique that frustrates me because it’s focusing on the wrong thing. People are pointing to Encanto and saying things like all the songs sound the same (which is amazing since the only thing they all have in common is that they fall under the umbrella of Latin music. Each individual song is of a different type which is why Surface Pressure doesn’t sound like Dos Oruguitas for reasons besides how one is in English and the other Spanish.) They are also saying that Lin repeats himself too much. Which... yes he kind of does but not in the way they accuse.
For instance people point to the “Grand kid round up” part of The Family Madrigal as sounding so much like Lin and I’d love for these folks to name literally any song in Lin’s vast library where he’s used that sound or concept. The line stands out sure. It’s clunky. But what it sounds like is an interjection from a kid’s TV show where we meet the cast members of the latest Mickey Mouse Club or whatever. It’s not a Lin-ism.
Then they point to things like the overlapping singing in We Don’t Talk About Bruno which yes! This is now getting closer to it! Lin has done this before such as in Non-Stop. But what they miss is that Lin didn’t invent that song technique by a long shot.
And what they also miss is that one of Lin’s greatest strengths can, when he’s not careful, be his greatest weakness: He’s constantly referencing other sources.
See, Lin is a freestyler. Part of freestyle is taking things you already know - be it topics or rhymes - and putting them together in interesting ways. This also connects to one of the types of music Lin loves most which is hip hop. Part of what went into the creation of hip hop was, among other things, that the people who were making the music often didn’t have access to proper instruments. So they took things they did have, like albums and record players, and found ways to remix what was already there into something brand new. Hence how Aerosmith’s Walk This Way turns into Run DMC’s Walk This Way.
Now within the remix world there are many debates about what counts as a remix vs simply stealing someone else’s work. In addition to legal issues you have the question of when do you need to give credit for the original material and songs which either fail or succeed as having transformed the original work enough to get the blessing of the artist.
The list of references in Hamilton alone is a huge one and that’s even if you’re only narrowing it down to hip hop references. He either includes allusions to or direct quotes from lyrics and occasionally even music. When you are pulling this much from other sources it is very easy to cross the line between creativity and an entire show of magnetic catch-the-reference poetry.
Where Lin’s genius comes in, among other places, is that he’s smart enough to know where and when to place the reference and why. He’s not pulling these things out of a hat but rather using the references as their own language to add meaning to the song he’s creating. For example, in “My Shot” he’s not randomly picking references to his favorite rappers, he’s deliberately referencing ones known for deftness with wordplay to stress how Hamilton himself is a wordsmith. This is also contrasted with how, moments before, John Laurens, Lafayette, and Hercules are purposefully given the most basic of rap styles and lyrics to work with. After all, ask any random person to rap and they’ll probably stumble and start with “I’m [name] and I’m here to say - “ and the show gives us “I’m John Laurens in the place to be” and even “Oui, oui mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette.” which are that very thing in two different languages. Similarly when doing love songs he doesn’t pull from Biggie he does Beyonce.
You get the idea.
And again: this could easily backfire! It takes incredibly skilled hands to bring these references together into something coherent, let alone meaningful. Likewise when you’re as prolific as Lin is these days it becomes super easy to reuse a reference. Case in point, you can make a scavenger hunt for yourself on how often he uses West Wing’s “Come home at the end of the day” line. Here, I’ll even spot you one.
(Though of course it could be argued that repeating Sorkinisms is, in and of itself, a Sorkinism.)
So when we talk about the issue of “oh Lin repeats himself!” it’s not that Lin is repeating himself per se it’s that he’s drawn to repeating certain references. As for example, things from Les Mis. I mean when the man sings Les Misérables he does Valjean’s parts with Colm Wilkinson’s accent for fuck’s sake. (And yes, I’m aware that me immediately knowing the accent he’s imitating says volumes about how much I have imprinted on Broadway musicals.)
(Also apologies for linking to a James Cordon piece but it’s the best recording I could find of Lin singing One Day More. But seriously, any time he does Les Mis he’s doing Colm Wilkinson from the original cast recording.)
But point being as a freestyler Lin keeps snippets of references in his brain to pull out at any given moment and, when he’s on, it means he can turn them into works of fucking brilliance. Such as when, given a prompt like “mixtape,” Chris Jackson can improvise a sweet song about the concept of mixtapes and Lin creates a song about an entire mixtape playlist he came up with off the top of his god damn head. Like Jesus fuck dude, save some talent for the rest of us.
Anyway! Point being if you want to get on Lin for repetition what you want to do is say he needs to freshen up his references and be aware he’s got some he uses as go to crutches in a pinch rather than making sure he was using the right one at the right time. But at the same time if the oof ones are maybe 0.00001% of his output maybe he’s not doing so bad, hum?
Don’t ask if I did that math. My point is if an Olympic athlete biffs one medal attempt they’re still doing leagues better than I ever will.
Bringing this back to Tick, Tick... Boom!, part of why Lin is a perfect choice for directing this movie is that a movie that very easily could be spot the Easter egg isn’t because Lin isn’t treating the Easter eggs as the content but rather the language. For example, yes, we get establishing shots that show us things like Jonathan’s true to life bent bookshelves, or that unhoused people were a significant part of Manhattan’s population in 1990, but there’s no painful lingering shots that come with blinking neon signs going “Get it? DO YOU GET IT???”
Even the clothing and hair, which easily could’ve been the worst of the late 80s/early 90s clichés, was instead evocative of the time without being distracting. Karessa’s hair in particular stood out to me because I absolutely had classmates rocking that “use the hair spray like you just slammed your head into a wall” style but it was done in a way that was simply Karessa’s look and not hair and makeup showing off their ability to mimic.
Likewise, while I’m sure someone was nerdy enough to sit down with Jonathan’s original apartment video to figure out each and every cassette tape in his collection so they could recreate the labels and the order in the case - because fuck knows I would have - we the audience don’t have our faces shoved into it going “LOOK! LOOK! IT’S THE THING! THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE STORY!”
Another aspect of this is that Lin is a fanboy. He loves this stuff and he wants to share the love of this stuff. While yes, he’s given interviews about how Tick, Tick... Boom! felt like a message in a bottle to him about what his 20s was going to be like, this is not the Lin-Manuel Miranda story. There’s no Very Special Moment when a Puerto Rican kid bumps into Jonathan on the subway, and Lin himself only appears because covid meant they couldn’t get Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien. (Plus you barely see his face and he credits himself as “Moondance cook” not “’Sunday’ Legend.”)
I also suspect that a not insignificant number of Lin’s directing decisions were made from the angle of helping Jonathan’s work be its best self as well. Case in point Play Game. I get that in the original it was probably meant to be funny but, as the brief glimpse we get of Andrew acting it out shows us in TTB, a white guy bouncing around in a pink baseball hat is at best cringe and at worst finding the wrong kind of humor in what rap is supposed to be. (The “boy don’t these supposed songs sound silly” kind).
Instead in TTB what we get is a pitch perfect homage to rap videos as they were in 1990 (complete with the dancers) with the added benefit of some beautiful jokes at Broadway’s expense as well (”Gypsy (Again)” and “White People Arguing About Marriage” being two of my favorites). Plus I mean come on, if you have Black Thought, aka one of if not the greatest freestylers, on your speed dial why wouldn’t you call him to do your rap number and then get the entire fuck out of his way?
(Ten minutes. He did ten minutes of solid freestyle, people.)
(Also “I’ll be auditioning for the role of Old Deuteronomy” killed me. For the record I would watch the shit out of that version of Cats.)
There’s also the aspect where Lin wants the best idea in the room to win. One example of which is him deferring to the cameraman in the Swimming scene because hey, when you’ve hired the guy who also got the amazing shots in 96,000 why wouldn’t you listen to him?
As you might imagine, a lot of this builds up to the cameo-studded Sunday. Which is, yes, in many ways a culmination of Lin’s love of Jonathan, of Sondheim, of music, and of Broadway. What it also is, however, and what Tick, Tick... Boom! is as well, is Lin making sure he never pulls up the ladder behind him as he climbs his way to success.
A key thing to remember about the filming of TTB is that after about nine days they had to shut down because of Covid. Likewise Broadway itself entirely shut down on March 12, 2020. It opened up again but it is struggling, oh boy is it struggling.
And remember what I said: Broadway isn’t just the people on the stage. Broadway being shut down means everyone connected to Broadway is out of work as well.
Lin’s got a history of paying it forward, though. For example, when Hamilton blew up Lin pivoted the viral Ham4Ham shows which were meant to drum up support for Hamilton itself and instead used them to highlight other shows on Broadway to encourage people waiting for Hamilton tickets to go there (examples including Fun Home, Allegiance, On Your Feet, and more. Also bless Howard Sherman for recording so many of those.)
Lin’s also helped out Broadway in general when it comes to preserving its history. For instance stepping in to save The Drama Bookshop when rising real estate prices combined with a flood to threaten to shut the place down.
Thus, when we see cameos from Broadway stars and other actors in Tick, Tick... Boom it isn’t just Lin paying his respects, it’s also keeping some of these people employed during a pandemic. Likewise when places like the New York Theater Workshop had to shut down, Lin cancelled plans to use a set and moved the scenes of Andrew doing the rock monologue of Tick, Tick... Boom into the very location where Jonathan started performing it and rented the other theaters nearby for storage and staging.
So yeah. Tick, Tick... Boom! is a love letter to Broadway by a guy who adores it and who used the film itself to try to support Broadway as much as possible in a time when Broadway especially needed it. The fact that Lin did some fairly good directing on top of all of that was kind of cherry on the sundae.
Why Andrew Garfield Is Probably Getting An Oscar Nomination
All of which brings us to Andrew Garfield. I mean there are great performances in this movie, not the least of which is Robin de Jesus as Michael. But Andrew’s the one getting all the buzz so let’s take a sec to chat about why.
First up I’m going to say that I think Andrew did a good job of translating Jonathan’s frankly exhausting “Notice me!” behaviorisms into a quick “Yeah I got it” homage which he then moved on to making his own. We weren’t subjected to a couple of hours of Jonathan’s smug little head bob, for instance. Also Andrew’s Jonathan felt like a character and not like Andrew trying to do an imitation of somebody.
All of which is some bog standard acting challenges, don’t get me wrong. I’m always amused when someone on social media will do something like post a picture of an actor in one role and then a picture of them in a different role and say nobody else could do that and meanwhile I’m there like no, actually all actors could do that since ability to play more than one role is part of the fucking job.
So “embodied a character” is not what makes Andrew Garfield stand out here. What does, however, is some of his quieter choices.
Now to be clear, if it wasn’t how for Tick, Tick... Boom! is a movie about the entertainment industry - which awards shows love more than producers with loose requirements for why they’d fund a show - and for the trivia point of “Did you know Andrew couldn’t sing before he was cast???” I don’t know that Andrew’s performance here would be enough to catapult him into the awards. Same as how I think we can all agree that Anne Hathaway wouldn’t have been considered if not for how she also had the “never sang before” thing plus she cried really hard and she made sure to keep her hair short all during awards season in case anybody forgot she let them cut it on camera as well.
And don’t get me wrong! I like Anne Hathaway just fine! But homegirl knew how to play the game for that Oscar and part of it was keeping that pixie cut front and center.
Now if we’re going for comparable “did a trick” style moments for Andrew Garfield, which I’d say his would be in Swimming since the thing that surprised everybody, including the swim double they brought in, was that Andrew actually knew how to swim and swim well. So not only were they able to use shots of Andrew which communicated Jonathan’s anxiety and feeling of being trapped, they were able to do things like get long shots of Andrew underwater with his eyes open and actually acting while he did it. (I can’t even open my eyes underwater period, let alone try to embody emotions beyond the agony I feel for having tried to open my eyes when surrounded by chlorine or salt water.)
But the one that’s probably going to get the most attention - and certainly the most comparisons to Anne Hathaway doing I Dreamed a Dream - is Why. So let’s unpack it a little and talk about why it’s good.
In the movie Jonathan has just found out that his best friend Michael is HIV+. One of the things this movie does well is bring home how, in 1990, this was a death sentence. Yeah you might have good days and bad but if you were told you were HIV+ back then you’d been told you were going to die. Maybe in a year or two, but it was a guarantee.
Now Jonathan’s reaction to this is very selfish, in that what he first and foremost thinks about his how upset he is about this news with zero thought to how Michael might be feeling about it. And I was happy to get confirmation that they were fully aware that this is how this part of the movie came off and it was done so deliberately. I get itchy when I see pieces of media where people talk about characters being so empathetic and supportive when I’m pointing at the text and going “Uhh, could you circle the scenes where that happened, please? Because I think they forgot to include them.”
Anyway, so Jonathan runs off into Central Park because of how upset he is and he ends up at a piano at Delacorte Theater where he sings Why.
I suspect most people are going to compare Why to I Dreamed A Dream because they were both sung live - which is to say right there in front of the cameras instead of being lip synced to a prerecorded track - and because they involve crying. And yes they share these things in common but “not as over the top as Anne’s scene” isn’t why Andrew stands out here.
First up, singing live is not actually a difficult party trick for someone in a musical. In Broadway musicals in particular cast members do it eight times a week. Singing live in movies isn’t that big of a deal either. The reason why a fuss was made in Les Mis is because first and foremost they acted like this was a big deal because the movie of Les Mis was made by a guy who knew fuck all about how to film musicals. Of course he thinks “Hey did you know they sing in these things???” is miraculous.
On top of that part of the problem with Les Mis was that they let the actors do whatever they wanted when they sang. I sadly can’t find any links to the interviews where the actors talk about how that affected their performance right now but this video deconstructs a lot of the issues with Les Mis and shows clips from some of those interviews so consider it a twofer. But the short version is that while it’s great to be able to do a different line reading for dialogue with every take a different line reading for music is harder because, unless you’re singing a capella, the music has to somehow match you.
This then results in what happened with Les Mis which was that much of the music sounded awful because the orchestra recording after the fact had a hard time getting the music to connect with what the actors did that day. So the actors get to brag about their fancy shmancy acting on the set and meanwhile anyone who understands music is huddled in a corner quietly weeping.
And, it cannot be stressed enough, being able to act and put your own flavor on a song while still singing the song as intended is what Broadway performers do eight fucking times a week. Do that trick, Tom Hooper.
Ahem. Anyway! Bringing this back to Andrew. Our boy couldn’t sing but spent a year with Liz Caplan to learn how, which is kind of like saying I can’t paint but I spent a few weeks with Michelangelo to get the idea of it. Liz Caplan is a goddess of helping people to sing.
So it’s not that Andrew sang which is the nifty part, though he sings very well and you can tell he put the work in to get to that level. Its the acting he does with the singing and here is where we come back to Why.
Compare the version of Why recorded for the soundtrack with the version in the movie. The version in the movie was sung live, in two takes, at around midnight at the Delacorte Theater, within the first week of Tick, Tick... Boom starting to film and just before everything, filming included, was shut down for the pandemic. Which puts the filming of this scene at early March 2020 in case you’re wondering how much of that foggy breath we’re seeing is Andrew’s instead of CGI.
Listen to the soundtrack version of Why first. It’s a ballad. It’s got some emotion to it here and there but it’s basically Andrew singing a pretty, soft song. Other than a slight noise here or there, like a chuckle, Andrew could be singing any song. He could be singing I Dreamed a Dream, frankly. It’s very lovely to listen to but he’s just singing the song as written.
Now try the live performance, which was filmed a couple of months after the recording for the soundtrack.
First up, Andrew is still singing the fucking song. He’s not going off key, he’s not adding in weird pauses, he’s not Les Mis-ing it up, in other words. Even though the only accompaniment here is the piano so it would be easy to line up the music after if they needed to, he’s still keeping with the song as written.
Except for how he’s acting.
In the movie version Andrew’s actually connecting with the song. He’s singing a eulogy for Michael. Granted Jonathan is still Jonathan so ultimately the message of the song is “Michael was such a great friend because he was standing there during the times of my life when I realized I was destined for the theater” but again this goes back to Andrew’s acting. If you take the lyrics as is - which is how they are sung on the soundtrack, for the most part - it’s mostly Jonathan talking about himself with Michael as an accessory. Even when Jonathan Larson himself sang it it was still a Jonathan Larson song which mentions Michael from time to time.
Now in fairness to Jonathan Larson he intended the song to be sung in a performance of his one man show, which puts it into a different context for how he’s presenting it. Jonathan in the show isn’t trying to convey that he just found out Michael is dying and this song is his gut reaction. It’s him talking about things which have happened in the past and which he’s already processed, so here’s a song he later wrote about his thoughts at that time. It’s okay, in other words, that Jonathan is putting different emotions here.
But for Andrew’s version it’s the gut reaction. This is the classic musical moment where the character’s feelings are so strong they have to sing, and Jonathan is singing this.
So now pay attention to Andrew in the movie version. How many times have you seen someone stand up and give a version of this speech, be it at a wedding or a funeral? “Man when I think of my good friend I remember this funny story from our childhood. Remember how you couldn’t sing? And we had to practice for what felt like years?”
And how many times when doing these speeches, especially at funerals, do we have those moments of thinking we can ride the happy, funny memory long enough to get us to the next thing we wrote down only we remember, oh shit, yeah, they’re gone. Oh fuck this hurts so much. Hang on, I have to keep going - and you ride that wave again and again.
That’s what Andrew is doing in this moment, interspersed with Jonathan being Jonathan so part of what draws his focus is when he talks about himself. “Michael is dying so what does this mean for my future? Oh yeah I’m supposed to be talking about Michael, well here’s another memory - “
In Jonathan’s words, Andrew is doing this over and over and over. But, even more skillfully, he’s hitting some pretty subtle notes with it. The one that particularly stands out to me is when he gets to the line about “Mike sings his song now on Mad Avenue” because you can hear his voice crack at “sings” which is to say you can tell in that moment Jonathan just had the gut punch of oh shit, I’m going to be talking about him in past tense pretty soon.
I’d also like to take a moment here to talk about the skillful way Lin handled the directing and adaptation of this song. Granted the scene has a lot of what I suspect is a first time director’s weakness of Lin’s, which is that it’s one of several scenes where the camera keeps moving when it doesn’t need to. I’m chalking this up to Lin’s inexperience because it feels like a lack of confidence that it’s okay to just let the camera be and capture what the actors are doing. You don’t have to insist on movement to justify why you’re there.
But in terms of what goes well it’s how Lin lets the song exist in the world of this movie and doesn’t yank it into the context of the real world. In the real world the man Michael was based on is alive to this day and Jonathan died the night Rent was scheduled to premiere. Given that the song already is about their relationship and death it would’ve been so easy to make even a small tweak to make this a “GET IT???” moment. For example instead of “I’m gonna spend my time this way” change it to “I’m going to spend my life this way” and then we all go “Oooh, get it? Because he died?”
So yeah, once again an example of Lin knowing that the best thing to do is get out of the way and let the thing exist in its best form. And also a great moment on Andrew’s part of finding a way to get the emotions in there and take us on this journey of what Jonathan is thinking and feeling even as he’s not moving away from the notes and lyrics as they are on the page.
Is that enough to make Andrew deserve an Oscar? He’ll probably get nominated. In terms of if he should win it let me get back to you when I see who he’s up against. But it was a pretty good performance all the same.
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else.
- Another example of Lin always making sure to honor the people who got him where he is today is that the woman in the flashbacks in Why is played by Barbara Ames, who is the teacher Lin credits with giving him his love of music.
- I don’t think people understand how obsessed I am with the pitch perfect actual high school musical style choreography we get in the glimpses of West Side Story in Why. The small stage, the “I! Am! Hitting! My! Mark!” of it all. I fucking love it.
- I agree with every other reviewer who says that we didn’t need the voice over at the beginning and end telling us This Is Who Jonathan Larson Was And Did You Know He Was Taken From Us Too Soon? The stage show was enough of a framing device and the internet exists if anybody needed more details.
- Jonathan snottily says he can’t do his show with just a piano but plenty of others have managed it, boo boo. Also the addition of the other instruments made the song sound worse in my not so humble opinion.
- This movie was blessed with a lot of behind the scenes interviews about how it all came together. I’ve already linked to some above but to round out the rest Lin tweeted about the making of Sunday, Lin and Andrew did a Notes on a Scene for Boho days, and Tod A. Maitland gave this interview about the sound mixing.
- This video doesn’t get every single Easter egg in the movie but it sure does cover a lot of them.
- Finally, I think “Do you know that was actually the swimming pool Jonathan swam in?” is going to be the “Did you know Viggo broke his toe?” of this movie.
And there we have it! A few months late but before Oscar season and hey, I’ve done less timely movie reviews. I hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading!
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