Sheer Heart Attack – tick, tick… BOOM!

The journey through the probable Netflix Oscar nominees continues with a film I was really looking forward to seeing when it was first announced, but that sadly fell by the wayside as my free time became coopted by other projects and obligations. As a fan of musical theatre, I was quite excited for tick, tick… BOOM!, especially because the occasion marked the feature directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has just had himself a hell of a year for 2021 between this, In the Heights, and Encanto. I swear to all things holy if he gets denied an Oscar in favor of Billie Eilish because the Academy keeps trying to pander to disinterested youth I will fucking scream!

Overall, this is a very good movie, though there are some structural flaws. Mostly that comes down to an underused supporting cast in service of elevating leading man Andrew Garfield, bringing this very close to “Best Actor Showcase” territory. But also, there’s a slight degree of dissonance between the actual plot of the story and the subtextual reference to the main character’s other work.

I’m getting the negatives out of the way first, because they are noteworthy, and because I do want to spend more time on the good stuff, which far outweighs it. And for what it’s worth, given the more downer elements of the story, it’s worth bringing up the emotional engagement that begins as a triumph of the film before it becomes something of a misfire.

Garfield stars as Jonathan Larson, the Broadway rock musical wunderkind who created the beloved Rent, and who tragically died before the show’s debut. The film, also based on Larson’s semi-autobiographical stage show about his early struggles, is cleverly split between an intimate theatre where he performs with an in-house band (featuring himself, Joshua Henry, and Vanessa Hudgens on vocals) and cinematic flashbacks where the actual story plays out.

From a pure plot construction standpoint, this is a sound technique, but it slips a bit in the presentation. For one, supporting actors Robin de Jesús (playing Jonathan’s friend, Michael, who gave up on acting for a stable career in advertising) and Alexandra Shipp (playing his girlfriend, Susan, a former dancer caught in a similar dilemma between chasing dreams and choosing a more practical life) are often given short shrift in order to let Garfield shine. It’s especially sad because both actors are tremendous singers, but never get the spotlight for themselves. Robin de Jesús only gets one solo song (and he mostly just repeats one line), while Shipp has a split solo on “Come to Your Senses” with her singing in the moment and Hudgens singing on the stage.

For another, oftentimes there’s not all that much going on in a given scene to justify the cuts to Larson’s past. The onstage segments are note-perfect in terms of tone, blocking, and camera work, and the simple performance of the songs provides a lot of the film’s energy, to the point that a good amount of the numbers fully choreographed in dramatic scenes almost come off as rote (though the deluge of cameos from Broadway royalty during the “Sunday” number was some fun fan service). The minimalist set for the stage show feels more alive than the active sets of the dramatization a lot of the time.

The final major issue is that while the story is about Larson trying to get his musical, Superbia produced (the plot is about the leadup to its first workshop for the industry powers), the film is framed much more as Larson’s life being projected into Rent, even though late narration treats it as a coincidence. It’s weirdly confusing, and tonally misplaced, because there’s been this major buildup over the course of the film about Larson’s Bohemian lifestyle and his pain at watching his friends suffer through the AIDS crisis, only for that not to have any real relation to the film’s resolution.

It’s needlessly manipulative, and it hit me kind of hard, because this is a subject that’s been on my mind a lot lately. If you want to skip the next three paragraphs while I indulge in some reminiscence, I won’t be offended. I mentioned this briefly in my “Top 100 of the 2010s” list, specifically in the entry for Dallas Buyers Club, that there was a very close friend of my family who died from the disease. His name was Carl, and his diagnosis brought a lot of things home about the HIV issue. He and my mother were the best of friends when they were younger, they dated, and at one point they were even engaged. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some alternate universe where he’s my father. We used to take trips down to visit him in Virginia at least once or twice a year. We’d go to amusement parks or play video games together. I used to always giggle when he got a high score, because he got to enter his initials – CAD – into the arcade tower, leading me to don a bad British accent and exclaim, “You cad!”

We didn’t know he had the virus until he nearly died of liver failure in 1994. I’d never seen my mom’s face look so stern yet scared as she simply listened to the news via phone. She couldn’t even speak to me, but had to write down, “Carl is dying of AIDS” on a notepad so I’d know what was going on. I had learned about the disease in school, and thankfully I had health classes that didn’t conflate the illness with some sort of religious or moral failing, so I got facts rather than bigoted posturing from my teachers when I asked questions. After he survived that first scare, mom had to get tested, and thankfully she hadn’t contracted anything from him (it’s believed he became infected in the mid-80s, well after they were no longer together). I, on the other hand, had to laugh a little bit, because I had only recently learned what homosexuality was, and it never once occurred to me that Carl was gay. I never questioned for a second that Carl, a “confirmed bachelor,” who lived in a single-wide, one-bedroom mobile home with his “roommate,” Terry, and who owned two Pomeranian dogs, might be batting for the other team. Never even crossed my mind. Mom later admitted to me that she kept dating Carl after he came out to her, because he was in the Navy and didn’t want to be kicked out. Eventually it became an open secret and his unit never told on him, so he was fine from a career standpoint, but his concern was more than legitimate.

But watching someone so close to us go through this struggle was one of the formative experiences of my life. A thing I’d seen on the news and heard about in the classroom went from abstract concept to something tangible. When Carl was strong enough the following spring, we all took a “family” trip to Disney World, because he had always wanted to go. It was like Make-A-Wish for a man in his late 30s This week marked 25 years since we lost him. When we got the call, it was one of the few times I ever saw my mother cry uncontrollably.

So yeah, he weighed heavily on me as I watched the more serious dramatic moments of this film. As Jonathan laments and stresses about how he’s been to too many funerals, buried too many of his friends because of this disease, I was shaken. Knowing how he would eventually create Rent (which is mentioned in opening narration for those unaware), which dealt with this issue more viscerally than any piece of art had ever attempted, the movie creates this deep resonance with viewers like me who’ve witnessed the toll it takes. To then just toss it off as ultimately having nothing to do with Rent feels like a little bit of a cheat. I’m not offended, just disappointed at the casual nature with which Miranda plays on our emotions.

Okay, rant over, eyes wiped dry, on to the quality shit. First and foremost, we have to talk about Garfield’s performance, because he’s very likely to receive his second Oscar nomination next month. The two things I keyed in on most were his singing voice (surprisingly good) and his physicality. Larson died of an undiagnosed heart condition, and Garfield’s performance emphasizes the layers of pressure and stress that Larson was under throughout his creative process (a lot of it of his own making), foreshadowing his fate completely without words. No better is this illustrated than by straining his neck so that his veins are visible nearly at all times. It’s a very subtle piece of body language that conveys so much about the character. More than anything he says (or sings), this one constant gets Larson’s personality across with expert precision.

As I mentioned, the supporting cast doesn’t get much to do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have moments. Hudgens is the only character apart from Garfield to bridge both the stage show and the dramatized story, and she gives what is easily her best film performance. There’s a funny exchange between Bradley Whitford and Richard Kind, with the two playing Stephen Sondheim (Larson’s mentor) and Walter Bloom (a workshop producer), respectively. Bloom criticizes everything about Larson’s songwriting, only for Sondheim to immediately contradict him, leading Bloom to obsequiously agree. The two veteran actors play off each other quite well. Finally, in a completely out of left field turn, Judith Light – yeah, as in Angela from Who’s the Boss? – has two incredible scenes as Larson’s agent, balancing the more stereotypical fakeness of a showbiz huckster with legitimate insight into just how hard it is to make it in the industry, providing a stunning, but necessary, reality check for our hero.

The film is shortlisted in the Sound category with the Academy, which is something of a token nod, because in a year with a lot of musicals (sadly not enough to finally award Best Original Musical, as only Encanto, Annette, and maybe Belle would qualify), not all of them have an original score or song that can be nominated, so the Academy probably wants to recognize the most crucial element of any musical in some way (the West Side Story remake is also shortlisted in this category, likely for the same reason). The overall sound quality is strong, particularly when it comes to Larson’s insistence that his workshop for Superbia have a full band rather than just a lone piano. As the instrumental layers build from one rehearsal to the next, you can truly feel like you’re a part of that construction.

But there’s an even better technical element at play here, and that’s the editing. While the content can be a tad lacking in the drama segments as opposed to the stage scenes, the way the film cuts between the two is fantastic, almost as if editors Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum are creating their own orchestration through the shot selections. There’s even one truly fantastic display of rudimentary visual effects (which would likely be left to the editors rather than a full VFX team), where inspiration strikes Larson whilst swimming laps, and a music staff with notes materializes before his eyes on the tiles of the pool’s floor. Very well done! It’s not flashy, but I love it.

I’m glad I finally watched this movie. It’s far from perfect, but I think Miranda largely accomplishes what he sets out to do, which is give us a redux look at Jonathan Larson’s life through his own therapeutic songbook. There are some miscues in the presentation, and a highly capable supporting cast is mostly left wanting for screen time, but on the whole this is an endearing, and wildly entertaining, reflection of a brilliant mind lost too soon.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of Larson’s work? What is your favorite musical? Let me know!

5 thoughts on “Sheer Heart Attack – tick, tick… BOOM!

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