Lin Manuel-Miranda

tick, tick… Boom!

20/11/21

Netflix

Lin Manuel-Miranda is having a bit of a moment. After his breakthrough with Hamilton, it was perhaps inevitable that we’d be seeing a lot more of him, but, close on the heels of the filmed adaptation of his first theatrical endeavour, In the Heights, here’s his directorial debut. And, just over the horizon, lurks the Disney animation he’s created the music for – Encanto.

It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate director for tick, tick…. Boom! Here, the second musical by the late Jonathan Larson is turned into a production that’s about as meta as you could ask for: a show about a show about the creation of another show, Larson’s debut production Superbia. This adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, was something he spent eight years of his life working on, but was destined to be seen by only a handful of people.

It’s hardly a spoiler to point out that Larson was the creator of Rent and that he died tragically of an aneurism, at the age of thirty-five, the night before its premiere. The show subsequently went on to enjoy a twelve year run on Broadway, and won countless awards.

When we first encounter Jonathan (Andrew Garfield), he’s trying to write a song for Superbia and, like any real genius, he’s suffering for his art, eking out a precarious existence in his down-at-heel flat. He’s trying to maintain a troubled relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Ship), and he’s working at a local diner earning the pennies to fuel his dreams of success. His best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesus), who he’s known since childhood, throws over his own long-nurtured ambition of becoming an actor and goes into the world of advertising, reaping himself a beautiful high-rise flat into the bargain. He offers Jonathan a way in to that world but Jonathan is adamant.

He will achieve his dream, whatever the cost.

Tick, tick… Boom! is all about the pain of artistic endeavour – the pursuit of success at all costs – and, inevitably, because we know what’s waiting for our hero a few years down the line, the whole enterprise seems shockingly accentuated. Brilliantly staged and easily accessible, TTB wastes no time in its setup but flings us headlong into Larson’s world. We see his story as presented by him and his fellow performers as a kind of rock-opera-workshop. The songs are accessible, the lyrics witty and relevant and Garfield is exceptional in the central role, piloting us to the dizzy heights and awful depths negotiated by any artist trying to be heard.

Those fearing that this will be unbearably ‘arty’ can relax. This is a story that covers all of the emotions from exuberant to poignant, and it would be a flinty heart indeed that doesn’t warm to a tragic tale of youthful genius that comes into flower just a moment too late. The spectre of AIDs hangs heavy over the proceedings – and, as some of Larson’s closest friends succumb to the illness, we begin to understand how Rent came to fruition.

‘Write about what you know,’ advises Larson’s elusive agent, Rosa (Judith Light). So he does – and finally finds the story that’s been eluding him for so long.

This is a delightful film, one that will strike chords with anyone who has striven to create art of any kind. Yes, there’s a deep vein of melancholy running through its heart, but just look and listen. There’s joy here too.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Hamilton

15/01/21

Disney +

Yes, I know, I know. What took us so long?

Well, I’ll be absolutely honest. I had some trepidation about watching this and most of it can be attributed to one three letter word. Rap. I haven’t previously been known for my appreciation of that musical form. Furthermore, I’m also unashamed to say that I’d never heard of Alexander Hamilton until Lin Manuel Miranda’s celebrated musical took the world by storm. But, finally here it is on Disney +, just waiting for me to get up the courage to press the button. Eventually, I can put it off no longer…

And of course, there is a large helping of humble pie waiting to be consumed. And while some of this most assuredly is rap – even in my ignorance, I picked up on a brief homage to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – for the most part it’s an assured musical packed with memorable songs and some swaggering performances.

Alexander Hamilton (Lin Manuel Miranda) was an American statesman, politician , military commander, lawyer, banker and economist. (But what did he do in his spare time, you might ask?) The musical follows his progress from eager student to influential founding father; it marks his first encounters with Aaron Burr ((Leslie Odom Jnr), and his time as right-hand man to George Washington (Chris Jackson). There’s his romance and marriage to Eliza (Phillipa Soo), his platonic relationship with her sister, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and his skirmishes with Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Whenever things threaten to become a tad too serious, up pops Jonathan Groff as a simpering, preening King George, to lament about the loss of his colonies, accompanied by a jolly, bouncing melody.

After some initial reluctance, I find myself increasingly drawn into the story. It’s a complicated one that lends itself surprisingly well to the disciplines of the form. It’s interesting to note that when Shakespeare’s plays were first produced, they were performed in iambic pentameter, the voices strictly tied to the rhythm, which is, in a way, what Miranda is doing here, the different vocal exchanges perfectly judged and executed.

And, while it’s mostly about the songs and the incisive wordplay, there are also plenty of theatrical flourishes to catch the eye, excellent ensemble choreography, superb costumes and some astute stagecraft. Hamilton looks like a class act and that also contributes to its success.

So, yes, I’m glad I finally watched this and also I’m pleased that I learned something about an era of American history I previously knew little about. Strangely, with everything that’s happening in the USA right now, maybe I saw it at exactly the right time.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Mary Poppins Returns

 

23/12/18

Sporting a ‘what it says on the can’ title, Mary Poppins Returns is a thoroughly decent and handsomely mounted sequel to one of Disney’s most iconic films. I’ll ‘fess up right here and now and say that I don’t hold the original movie in the kind of esteem that some of my friends evidently do – but I entirely understand that, with its combination of whimsy and fantasy, it’s become a popular Christmas perennial.

The sequel takes place in depression-era London, some twenty years after the events of the first film, where the Banks children have grown up to a rather more depressing reality than they’ve been used to. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a recently bereaved widower with three adorable young children to look after, while his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has devoted her life to working for worthy causes. Michael hasn’t been too diligent about paying the bills and is now in danger of losing the beloved family home to the very bank he works for, after failing to keep up the repayments on a loan. The bank’s dastardly new manager, Wilkins (Colin Firth), is taking every step to ensure that the family home will soon be subject to repossession.

Into this troubled scenario, floats Mary (Emily Blunt), hanging onto the tail of a passing kite. Blunt is perhaps the logical actor to fill those famous red shoes,  but her incarnation is sterner and, it has be said, a good deal more mischievous than her predecessor. She is clearly in cahoots with local lamplighter, Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda), and together the two of them lead the Banks children into a whole series of magical situations.

If this sounds familiar, it ought to. The sequel sticks pretty closely to the format of the first film, replete with song and dance numbers – one of which is rather more fruity than you’d ever have expected from Julie Andrews – cleverly animated sequences (an underwater spectacle is perhaps the standout) and brief appearances from high calibre guest stars like Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury and a very spry Dick Van Dyke.

As I said, it’s all decently done, but perhaps, in the end, that over-familiarity works against it. Nothing here comes as a surprise and some of the plot strands are so needlessly over-complicated, they can only be solved by Mary – but she does have an infuriating habit of hanging back until the last possible moment. Also, sadly, none of the songs here are quite as memorable as the likes of Go Fly A Kite or A Spoonful of Sugar.

If you’re looking for a suitable Christmas film for all the family, this is probably the logical one to aim for, but be warned, you may not come out singing one of the songs.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney