Full disclosure: I love a musical but have a love/hate relationship with the Theatre. I have a very surface-level musical theatre knowledge, and I’m extremely selective about which shows I’ll buy tickets for…largely because they’re so fucking expensive. Some of my favorite memories have been of going to the theater; by that same token, some of the times I’ve been most annoyed and resentful have been at the theater.
In light of this, it may be unwise to watch a 2-hour semi-autobiographical musical that I know very little about. Well, here on the Collab we’re nothing if not rebels living on the fringes of society and taking astonishing risks.
An adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical sees Jonathan Larson struggling to finally finish the show he’s been working on for 8 years before turning 30.
On the verge of turning 30, musical theatre playwright Jonathan Larson is convinced he has only a few more days to seize long-desired Broadway success before he’s officially Old. Unfortunately, the only thing missing from Superbia, the dystopian rock musical he’s been working on for 8 years, is a second-act song. And while Jonathan has no problem whatsoever writing songs on any number of unlikely topics, he seems unable to finally write the missing song, which will make or break the entire production.
As Jonathan struggles to prepare his musical for a workshop, his hopes are high that he will get an offer to produce the show and stay on track to achieve the success of his idol Stephen Sondheim (whose first Broadway show was staged when he was just 27).
Predictably, as Jonathan focuses his energy entirely on the musical, he ignores the changes happening in the lives of those closest to him. Roommate and gay bff Michael has finally given up on his acting career, instead pursuing a well-paid advertising job and a luxury apartment. Long-term dancer girlfriend Susan abruptly decides to accept a teaching job in the Berkshires, hoping Jonathan will choose to move with her. Meanwhile, the AIDS crisis is hitting close to home as one of Jonathan’s diner coworkers contends with his HIV+ status.
While the workshop quickly approaches, Jonathan’s producer Ira has some hard truths: a) the show absolutely needs the completed second-act song, and b) Jonathan can’t afford the musicians he demands unless he finances them himself. Desperate for money, Jonathan accepts a gig Michael offers as part of an advertising focus group.
Unable to hide his disdain for the corporate world, Jonathan fails to take the focus group seriously, making his bff look bad. All of this leads to a major fight between the two friends, in which Michael points out the massive amount of privilege Jonathan has to live his life without shame as a straight man. At the same time, Jonathan is doing everything he can to avoid having a conversation with Susan about their future.
Ready or not, the day of the workshop inevitably arrives. Will Jonathan manage to write the musical’s hit song before the show starts…without burning all of his bridges?
4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
I enjoyed this film so much more than I expected. Further disclosures from above: I’ve only seen the film adaptation of Rent (not a stage production), and I didn’t particularly enjoy it (pretty sure theatre people will back me up on this). Beyond that, I’m not usually keen on biographical films, as it can be difficult to get the balance right without turning the subject into a god-like figure. AND I’ve been burned by quite a few musical films disappointing me of late (with the exceptions of West Side Story and Encanto).
This is great, though, and avoids the problems that concerned me. Lin-Manuel Miranda deserves a lot of credit for the directorial choices here, and the film succeeds both as a movie and in capturing the energy & approaches of a stage production. There’s not actually much that happens in terms of plot, but the themes focused on the creative process, relationships, and the feeling of running out of time do keep things moving. It doesn’t hurt at all that the catchy and heartfelt songs provide a solid foundation (all of which are penned by Larson), and the balance of humor and tragedy is spot-on as it is in the best shows.
Beyond the ups and downs of creating, Jonathan’s friendship with Michael is the heart of the story, and we’ll always appreciate that approach on the Collab. Both Andrew Garfield (who I admittedly know nothing about beyond Spider-Man) and Robin de Jesús are perfectly cast and have fantastic chemistry in their scenes. We get some high quality cameos as well, with Tariq Trotter/Black Thought’s performance a particular standout.
I will say Jonathan’s anxiety about turning 30 to the point that he imagines his life is over does get tiresome. Thankfully, he gets called out on this, as one of the film’s messages is about what a privilege it is to make it to 30 (with some irony given Larson’s short life).
A couple of issues: first, I find Susan a boring character who exists onscreen primarily to nag Jonathan. I’m honestly so relieved that she chose herself and career over staying with Jonathan, as he was awful to her. It would have been nice for her to feel more like a real character.
Additionally, the film has the challenge of deciding how closely to connect Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical with his real life, and it doesn’t always do this well. It’s impossible not to address Larson’s young death before seeing the success of Rent, particularly since that’s probably 75% of what I’d heard about the film before watching it. However, the film choosing to bring this up in the very beginning and the very end is odd, making this element feel tacked-on. What’s more, this takes away some of the focus from the themes around HIV and AIDS.
Overall, I’m really impressed and surprised by how good this was; that’s what I get for doubting Lin-Manuel. I’d say this is my favorite of the Oscar nominees so far, and it wasn’t even up for Best Picture!