Movie reviews: Music takes centre stage in Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'Tick, Tick… BOOM!
This image released by Netflix shows Andrew Garfield in a scene from 'Tick, Tick...Boom!' (Macall Polay/Netflix via AP)
TICK, TICK.. BOOM!: 4 STARS
Tailor made for fans of musical theatre, “Tick, Tick...BOOM!,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Netflix autobiographical musical about “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson, is a celebration of the creative process and the following of dreams.
“Everything you are about to see is true… except for the parts Jonathan made up.”
It’s January of 1990 and Larson (Andrew Garfield) is a wannabe composer, working at a restaurant to pay the bills. He’s also about to turn 30 – older than Stephen Sondheim when he wrote his first musical. Older than Paul McCartney when he wrote his last song with John Lennon.
Eight years writing futuristic rock musical “Suburbia,” a satire set in the on a poisoned earth, he’s feeling the pressure to succeed. “I’m the future of musical theatre,” he says, but his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) wants to leave New York and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) gave up, leaving the stage for a job at an advertising company, making “high-five figures.”
Jonathan is struggling to finish his musical in the days leading up to a workshop of the show before a select audience of Broadway luminaries. He’s broke and being pulled from many different sides, but confident. “When ‘Suburbia’ gets produced,” he says optimistically, “I will be getting paid for my music.”
In his personal life, his friends and theatre colleagues are dying of AIDS. Professionally he’s distracted, struggling to finish the show, feeling anxiety at the passing of time and his failure to break through on Broadway.
“There’s not enough time,” he says. “Or maybe I’m just wasting my time. And the time keeps ticking, ticking, ticking and I have three days left to until the workshop. Three days left to write this song and if the song doesn’t work, the show doesn’t work. And then it has all been a waste of time.”
Larson’s preoccupation with time, about finding success and not being “a waiter with a hobby,” is made all the more poignant with the knowledge that he died in 1996, at the age of 36, on the day of “Rent's” first Off-Broadway preview performance.
“Tick, Tick...BOOM!” is kind of meta. It’s a musical about another musical, wrapped up in a movie musical. It follows Larson through the workshop for “Suburbia,” the writing of the songs for the off-Broadway show that gave the movie its title and the experiences that lead to the writing of era-defining show “Rent.”
Music takes centre stage, with exuberant performances of the song-and-dance number, “No More,” the catchy “Boho Days” and the powerful “Come to Your Senses” and the heartbreaking “Real Life,” but this is a musical whose dramatic scenes aren’t simply links between the tunes. Garfield not only captures Larson’s angst, but his passion as well. This is a story of following a dream, and the mix of aspiration, determination and desperation in Garfield’s performance is palpable. His face as his agent Rosa (Judith Light) tells him, “You keep throwing them against the wall and eventually hope that something sticks,” encapsulates the realization that every creative person must face.
As good as Garfield is, the real stars of “Tick, Tick...BOOM!” are Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The composer’s more obscure songs are given a deserving showcase and Miranda brings Larson’s story to life with equal parts reverence and joy.
On a side note, the film, finished and released before the death of Stephen Sondheim, presents a warm tribute to the legendary composer, who offered support and grace to Larson when many others didn’t.
THIS GAME’S CALLED MURDER: 2 ½ STARS
“This Game’s Called Murder,” the wild new Ron Perlman movie on VOD, is a very dark comedy about consumer culture, romance and murder that feels like a cult movie in waiting.
Written and directed by Adam Sherman, the movie is a lurid, surreal story that doesn’t play by the rules. Perlman is Mr. Wallendorf, designer of women’s luxury footwear. Known for his iconic blood red stilettos, he is a fashion icon, but behind his fame is murder, greed, and betrayal.
His wife, Mrs Wallendorf (Natasha Henstridge), is as shrewd as she is brutal, as witnessed by a scene where she shoots a business rival in the forehead and then offers to dance naked for him as he lay bleeding to death.
His daughter Jennifer (Vanessa Marano) is an alcoholic social media influencer whose online habits confound her father. “Why do you insist on having the entire world see you in your underwear,” he asks. “My fans love me,” she says.
Their lives are, to put it mildly, complicated. Things become more complex, and deadly, when Jennifer sabotages her father’s business as he tries to maintain a happy public face.
Ripe with violence and sex, “This Game’s Called Murder,” has a kind of dream logic to its plotting. The story is jumps around from character to character, plot point to plot point, creating an absurdist whole that aims to make a statement on social ills, using violence and very dark humour.
Greed, online influencers, alienation and consumerism are all ripe for social satire, but director Sherman’s (who also wrote the script) scattergun approach muddies the messages. The film’s twists and turns are often eccentrically entertaining, but in the second half, become tiresome.
Strange for the sake of being strange will only get you so far, and Sherman extends the weird stuff so far it feels like it might snap like an overstretched elastic band.
The movie’s visual style catches the eye, and Perlman is always a welcome presence, but as enjoyable as “This Game’s Called Murder” can be in its individual elements, it favours edge at the expense of the storytelling.
BRIAN WILSON: LONG PROMISED ROAD: 3 ½ STARS
Early on in “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road,” a new documentary about the legendary Beach Boys leader, now on VOD, an interviewer asks him to explain how he writes songs. “It starts in my brain,” he says. “Makes its way to the piano and on to the speakers in the studio.”
Can you explain further?
“No,” he says, “I can’t.”
That exchange sums up what a great deal of the film is like. Like it’s reticent subject, it doesn’t reveal much, certainly anything you don’t already know about Wilson’s well-documented life, but chance to hear his music recontextualized by talking heads like Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry and others is a treat.
Directed by Brent Wilson (no relation), the backbone of the movie is a road trip between Brian and “Rolling Stone” writer Jason Fine. They cruise around to Beach Boys hotspots like Malibu’s Paradise Cove, where the band shot their first album cover, his hometown of Hawthorne, Calif., and the house, perched high above Los Angeles, that was home to Wilson, his first wife Marilyn and the infamous sandbox he installed as a creative refuge. The two are longtime friends, but even in the comfort of Fine’s company, Wilson seems fragile, offering up short, non-descriptive answers to Fine’s questions.
More revealing are Elton John and Springsteen’s comments or producer Don Was, who calls Wilson, “One of the greatest artists who ever walked the face of the earth, in our time or any other time,” marveling at the production on “God Only Knows.” Former Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page talks about the pressure Brian must have felt being labelled a genius from an early age. Nick Jonas talks about expectations being the foundation for disappointment. In these moments the film mines something deeper, and offers a third-hand analysis of what it means to be Brian Wilson.
Of course, Wilson’s music speaks louder than words and it is here “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” excels. Wilson, it’s said in the film, used the studio as an instrument itself, and if this movie teaches us anything, it’s that everything we really need to know about the musician is already out there, on the grooves of his records.
THE SOUVENIR PART II: 3 ½ STARS
It’s rare to see a “Part II” on an arthouse flick title, but here we are. “The Souvenir Part II,” starring the mother and daughter duo of Tilda Swinton and Honor Swinton Byrne, and now playing in theatres, picks up where 2019’s “The Souvenir’s” coming of age story left off.
In that movie, film student Julie (Byrne) falls into a life-changing relationship with an older, arrogant man named Anthony. His death from a heroin overdose sends her reeling.
The new film sees Julie attempt to process Anthony’s death by making a graduation movie as a “memorial” for her late partner. As the project moves forward, it’s apparent Julie, who didn’t know Anthony was a addicted to heroin, is struggling to make sense of his loss. From the beginning, her idea is met with bewilderment by her professors who don’t like the script and her producing partner (Jaygann Ayeh) who grows frustrated with her choice in actors.
“The Souvenir Part II” is a quiet, meticulous film about how artists mine personal experience to create art, and to find a voice. Swinton Byrne’s Julie develops into a filmmaker, an artist and person who creates her own path. It is a lovely, delicate-but-steely, natural performance that digs deep into Julie’s maturity, personal and professional. It’s a pleasure to see Swinton and Swinton Byrne interact as mother and daughter in the film. There’s an authenticity to those scenes that feels like a warm hug.
“The Souvenir Part II” is based, in part, on director Joanna Hogg’s experience, and drips with complex ideas and emotions. As Julie heals herself, the film hauntingly has one eye on her past while the other looks to her future.
The filmmaking is more about mood than straightforward storytelling. It’s as if Hogg had a question from Julie’s film school classmate Patrick (Richard Ayoade) ringing in her head as she made the film. “Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?” he asks. She did, and the movie is better and more challenging for it.