Dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Starring Andrew Garfield, Robin de Jesús, Alexandra Shipp
There are spoilers for a recent release below…as always, I don’t care, but maybe you do!
During my musicals phase, this one (which I’m abbreviating as TTB the rest of the way because I have not gotten any more patient in my obsolescence) was the one I felt most bad about never getting to. This is such a theater kid show, one that’s never had a pure Broadway spot, macerated in Sondheim influence and drenched in Sondheim wannabe-ism. Its subject is a not even disguised version of its composer, Jonathan Larson, who of course died just before Rent had its first off-Broadway performance and only a few months before it became a huge hit on Broadway. It’s all about this mad desire to be big, the enormous pressure a creative puts on himself because he has delusions of grandeur that history has, ironically, proven him basically worthy of. This is how I managed to watch TTB as basically a blank slate, or at least as blank a slate as a guy who only had musicals on his iPod could be. All of this baggage that TTB comes with is not doing the film any favors, but we’ll get back to it later.
At least this is better than The Last Five Years, another film based on a musical which had fewer than a handful of people on stage, but it shares many of the same flaws in adaptation. (The movie version of The Last Five Years is one of the most disillusioning film experiences of my life.) Like Richard LaGravenese, Miranda is a writer before he’s anything else, and while I don’t want to act like Miranda will never be able to envision things more effectively than he does right now, the initial results aren’t great. He’s got a problem on his hands from the first number, “30/90,” which is also far and away the best song in TTB. He wants to keep the band and the three singers who make up your average production of TTB, but then he also wants to show the stuff that happens to Jon (Garfield) and his girlfriend Susan (Shipp) and his best friend since childhood Michael (de Jesús). In practice, this faithfulness to the original text only serves to make most of the musical numbers—to say nothing of the stand-up routine that Jon appears to be infusing into this show to do exposition—feel like little more than music videos.
Miranda has to know this. He’s got Black Thought in here for ten seconds doing an actual music video. The “Sunday” sequence at the diner is the most focused version of having every musical theater star since Miranda’s childhood make a cameo, and what it reminded me of most was a Natasha Bedingfield video. Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens are here to show from the get-go that Larson eventually gets a foothold with a show far smaller and more personal than Superbia, his giant-sized satire with a sci-fi setting. Miranda doesn’t try to unify this framing group with his narrative in any serious way, and it only adds to the music video vibes. Like Orson Welles, Miranda’s first go-round in the director’s chair for a film has given him an big electric train set to play with. When Welles got into his main character’s childhood for an essential scene, he and Gregg Toland created one of the greatest shots in cinematic history, showing a boy playing on his sled outside only to pull it indoors and find out how the boy’s happiness would be shattered forever by the oppression of wealth. When Miranda wants to get into his hero’s childhood for “Why,” he does home movies so we can see kid versions of Jon and Michael doing exactly what Jon is singing about. They’re two men molded by the theater, but only one of them seems to have any sense of how Anton Chekhov would have handled that scene.
The question of how Chekhov would have handled “Why” is significantly less important to Miranda (and Jon!) than how Sondheim would have handled it. Sondheim is a character in the film, a sort of benevolent grandpa played by Bradley Whitford. It’s a hilarious performance because of how hard Whitford leans into this muttering impression of the GOAT, down to a slump in the shoulders and the quiet confidence of being the guy who has to know he’s the GOAT. I laughed my butt off whenever Whitford did basically anything, so maybe I don’t need to turn in my Broadway card just yet, but TTB never really gets a handle on the anxiety of influence which Sondheim just has on this thing period. On one hand, Miranda is making a film about Larson, whose Rent is transposed to a different part of New York for In the Heights. But Jon himself feels enormous pressure to live up to the example of Stephen Sondheim in this film. “30/90” is not just a song about being afraid to turn thirty. It’s Jon’s way of planting a flag which compares his relative age to Sondheim’s relative youth when his lyrics for West Side Story were already famous. The birthday in the thirties causing a kind of existential crisis is just Company all over again. People sit around watching the tape of Sunday in the Park with George in TTB, and then of course there’s “Sunday,” which is funny for about twenty seconds and then goes on to be an entire song with seriously diminishing returns. (I can’t decide if filling this sequence with Joel Grey and Chita Rivera and Renee Elise Goldsberry and other luminaries of the Broadway stage is a genius choice made possible by Miranda’s networking so we can actually have something to look at it in this number, or if it’s the movie’s most baroque example of crippling self-involvement.) Sunday in the Park with George is a real choice, too, because it’s the Sondheim play most about what it means to be an artist. The message that Jon gets after Superbia shines artistically but not economically at the workshop is to write the next one. This is delivered by Rosa (Judith Light) in a phone call with Jon. There’s a subplot in TTB about Jon needing to write a song for Superbia because the musical needs one in a particular spot. Why doesn’t TTB know what Sunday in the Park knew, which is that “Move On” is the essence of the show, and that the scene where Rosa tells Jon that he needs to keep writing deserves a “Move On” of its own?
TTB has a good enough performance from Andrew Garfield at the center to make the entire movie watchable, which isn’t nothing. Robin de Jesús and Alexandra Shipp are both good too, for whatever that’s worth, even though neither one of them seems like any more of a person than the individuals Henry and Hudgens are playing. The only person in this film with anything like interiority is Jon, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense given the show’s origins. Jon has choices to make. Does he sell out like Michael, enjoy some physical comfort, and then use his leisure time to be supportive of his friends with AIDS? Does he throw his lot in with Susan, the modern dancer whose career was thrown off by injury and now has plans to move out of New York? Or does he stay true to himself as an artist even if that means not spending so much time visiting his friends in the hospital and breaking up with a saintly girlfriend? Sort of like Mark in Rent, Jon finds a way to thread a needle. It costs him a relationship with Susan (their big fight happens with “Therapy” intercut, which, to say the least, does not add anything to the scene), but they get to hug it out at the end. He comes to an understanding with Michael, also a hug it out moment, although the two of them never really get to the bottom of their disagreement about whether Jon is actually adding anything meaningful to a world with the AIDS crisis and bigotry by writing Billy Joel-inflected showtunes in his crap apartment. (Rent has this same problem, and it doesn’t have any more answers than TTB. Viva la vie boheme, tho.) Jon, in the end, stays true to himself as an artist by doubling down on his own personal goals, and tosses in some nods to the way AIDS is affecting him secondhand. It’s the proudest dream that anyone from White Plains could have.