Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
USA, 2021. 5000 Broadway Productions, Imagine Entertainment. Screenplay by Steven Levenson, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson. Cinematography by Alice Brooks. Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julie Oh. Music by Jonathan Larson. Production Design by Alex DiGerlando. Costume Design by Melissa Toth. Film Editing by Myron Kerstein, Andrew Weisblum.
Jonathan Larson brought a fresh rock sound to the Broadway stage and ushered in a new era of popular musical theatre with the success of his multiple Tony-winning evergreen hit Rent, but as is well known, he didn’t live to see it succeed, dying of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 the day before the show was set to open. A few years earlier he had performed a rock monologue that in 2001 was revamped as a chamber piece for three performers and, almost twenty years later, that show has been turned into a film by another wunderkind who more recently set the Great White Way on its ear, Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Andrew Garfield is endearing as Larson, a struggling, aspiring composer who waits tables at a Manhattan diner while challenging himself to keep pumping out songs on a daily basis, which he does with great efficiency, prepping for a workshop of a score he has been struggling to complete that he hopes will provide him with a breakthrough. He is feeling anxious about turning thirty, believing himself to be far behind the heroes of his craft who achieved far more than he has by that age, while around him his friends aren’t helping by turning away from their artistic pursuits and settling for day jobs that provide salaries and health care, his best friend (Robin de Jesus) becoming a finance guy and his increasingly frustrated girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) entertaining an offer to teach in the Berkshires. Larson has no desire to lose touch with the people closest to him, but as he pounds out one heartfelt, sweaty and deeply personal song after another, he comes to the realization that to give up on his dream of having the world hear his music is to deny his own identity. It helps that a Sondheim ex Machina (played by Bradley Whitford) steps in to offer mentorship, but even then the climb towards greatness is not going to be easy and, as we already know, won’t provide rewards that he can benefit from.
A host of Broadway luminaries appear in cameo spots that will thrill the fans who love the Inside Baseball feeling of it all, particularly in the standout “Sunday” number, while Vanessa Hudgens is a pleasure to hear sing on the show within the show; Garfield, despite singing professionally for the first time, and who trained for the part for a year, delivers a pure, resonant vocal performance that matches the graceful sensitivity of his acting (and is perhaps helped by the sound engineers, but none of us want to know about it if he is). It’s a story that has a great deal of respect for the struggle of artistry, the constant grind to create, the pain and vulnerability of putting your work out there and the heartbreak that comes far more often than the glory. Miranda, directing for the first time, takes the simple concept of the show and spreads it out into a number of fractured scenes mirroring the rhythm of Fosse’s All That Jazz, but in a desire to keep the focus on his main character’s pulsing, ticking nerves, uses the stylish presentation to lay the character’s heart bare rather than bury any vulnerability under an excess of style.
Miranda also lets it run on a touch too long and never quite turns the characters who aren’t Larson into much more than symbols of his emotional expression, but it must be said that while the 2005 film version of Rent lacked all the personality that made the stage show so successful, Miranda’s film manages to be grand and expansive while also maintaining a sense of the intimate and personal. If you’re someone, however, who has always found that all of Larson’s songs sound the same (Guilty), you’re not likely to find it more than a momentary and unremarkable diversion. Judith Light‘s vaudevillian turn as Larson’s agent feels like something that has been dropped in from the road company of Mame, but she eventually makes it pay off in a scene that is one of the film’s most devastating and painful.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Andrew Garfield); Best Film Editing
Golden Globe Award: Best Actor-Musical/Comedy (Andrew Garfield)
Nomination: Best Picture-Musical/Comedy
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Best Actor (Andrew Garfield)