tick, tick… BOOM!

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

If you did musical theater or sang in a school chorus growing up, chances are you heard “Seasons of Love” sung so often that just those simple opening piano notes were enough to send you from the room, howling—or maybe that was just me. Yet while Rent’s most popular song may have become a bit too popular in certain circles, there is no denying the show it originated from reshaped the musical theater landscape; take it or leave it (ha, guys, get it?), Rent revamped Broadway, inspiring a generation of future playwrights and librettists to pull from the current, messy world as the source of their inspiration. But before Rent, and before his untimely death from an aortic aneurysm the day before opening previews, Jonathan Larson wrote a semi-autobiographical one-man show called tick, tick… BOOM!, which would be revamped after Larson’s passing and morphed into a three-person show, enjoying many Off-Broadway performances before Lin-Manuel Miranda (who had previously starred as Jonathan in one of those productions) decided to try his hand at a film adaptation, where he proves to be as nimble a director as he is a writer.

Starring Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson the character, tick, tick… BOOM! employs two framing devices, the first being Jonathan’s girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) narrating from an unspecified time after his death over grainy faux home video footage, giving us the requisite information about Jonathan’s life before Rent, and the second being Jonathan’s first performance of tick, tick… BOOM! at the New York Theatre Workshop; the latter is quite fun, but the former feels a bit too cloying. As Jon begins to describe the mess of feelings he experienced in the days leading up to his 30th birthday, the camera cuts to those days as he juggles working at the Moondance Diner and prepping for a reading of a new musical he has written, Superbia; from here on out, the film will smoothly cut between Larson performing tick, tick… BOOM! onstage and him experiencing the events that inspired it.

“Lately,” Jonathan tells us, “I’ve been hearing this sound everywhere I go. Like a tick, tick, tick.” Like a time bomb. Like the end of his so-far lackluster writing career is fast approaching as he inches closer to the big three-oh with nothing to show for it—by that time, Stephen Sondheim had already written the lyrics to two Broadway shows (West Side Story and Gypsy), and Jon’s own father had started a bustling family, while Jon still waits tables and writes ditties about the sugar on them. Even though he has a workshop of Superbia the next week, his agent, Rosa (Judith Light), has barely been in contact about it, he can’t write the big act two number he needs Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) to sing, Susan is debating whether to take a job outside of the city as a dance teacher, his colleagues are dying to AIDs, and his friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has stopped trying to be an actor and instead has become a marketing bigwig, and is trying to convince Jonathan to join him. And, on top of this, Jon is behind on the, um, rent. The ticking clock hovers at the movie, getting louder and louder as everything seems to crash down onto Jon’s shoulders.

tick, tick… BOOM! is most definitely a movie made by musical theater kids for musical theater kids—and I say “kids” because you never stop being a theater kid, even as an adult—but it’s so earnest in its adoration of the art form, so genuine in its awe of the creative process, that even if you detest those annoying theater kids, it would be hard not to be won over by tick, tick… BOOM!. Miranda crafts each shot with care and precision; even if not all of his creative choices fully work (one number in particular recalls to mind Elrond’s floating head in Fellowship of the Ring), they are at least bold, and there can no doubt that Miranda has as much potential with a camera as a pen. He combines the best of both live theater and the movies: there are big dances, there are ballads and patter songs and group numbers, and they are all captured by the camera in a way that, while it doesn’t quite capture the magic of a live show, adds its own filmic twist that creates an entirely new layer.

His treatment of Jonathan Larson, whom he idolized as a teenager, is reverent without glossing over the man’s flaws; this is helped by an absolutely superb performance from Andrew Garfield, who won a Tony for Angels in America but has never tried his hand at musical theater—after this, we can only hope he chooses to do so. He imbues Jon with a fierce kinetic energy; whether he’s rejoicing in Michael’s new and fancy apartment or pulling his hair out trying to write a song, his gangly frame never quite still: his foot is always tapping, his fingers are always playing an imaginary piano. Of the supporting cast, only de Jesús, himself a Broadway veteran who co-starred with Miranda in In the Heights, can hope to match him; the rest are left handily in the dust.

tick, tick… BOOM! is one big, frenetic love letter to musical theater, to the creative process, and to the real Larson, genuine and open in a way that few things are nowadays. Just about anyone who is anyone on Broadway has a cameo, and homages to musicals such as Sunday in the Park with George abound (Bradley Whitford even shows up playing Stephen Sondheim in an excellent imitation, and the real Sondheim cameos as a voicemail), yet it’s not just for the musical theater kids: tick, tick… BOOM! is for anyone who has ever had a dream, for anyone who has ever believed they have more to offer the world, for anyone with eyes and ears and, most importantly, a heart.

tick, tick… BOOM! Trailer

tick, tick… BOOM! is currently available to stream on Netflix.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

In the Heights

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

Back before Hamilton, when Lin-Manuel Miranda was still a sophomore in college at Wesleyan, he wrote the first draft of what would become In the Heights, which would eventually premiere on Broadway nearly ten years later in 2008. While Heights would later get overshadowed by Hamilton (practically everything gets overshadowed by Hamilton, to be fair), at the time it was a fantastic success, running for almost three years on Broadway. John M. Chu’s adaptation of In the Heights serves as an ebullient reminder of why Lin-Manuel Miranda entered the cultural consciousness in the first place, proof that he was headed towards something great from the very first.

Set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, In the Heights follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, aka John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, taking over from Miranda, who originated the role on Broadway), a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic one day. He gives us a rundown of his neighborhood in the energetic opening number, including Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from Broadway), who raised Usnavi after his parents died; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns a taxi company; Benny (Corey Hawkins), a standup employee of Kevin’s; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s younger cousin; and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose confidence and good looks often make Usnavi put his foot in his mouth around her. Add to this group Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter who is returning home from Stanford for the summer, and you have the big players in the cast—it’s a big group, but Chu manages to (mostly) give each their due.

Set largely over the course of several days in the neighborhood with oppressive heat reminiscent of Do the Right Thing, but with Brooklyn swapped out for Washington Heights, In the Heights juggles all its residents dreams: Usnavi wants to go home, Vanessa wants to go downtown, Kevin wants to ensure his daughter remains the one who “made it out.” There are rising romantic tensions between Usnavi and Vanessa, and flames have reignited between exes Benny and Nina. There’s a blackout, fireworks, and a winning lottery ticket, but it’s really about the beating heart of Washington Heights: its people. The film may be culturally specific, but the joy resonates with everyone.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has become subject of some lightly mockery as of late, mostly from Gen Z, apparently no for no other reason than his honest sincerity (and maybe a certain unfortunate selfie pose)—because he still exhibits the type of hope that, for one reason or anything, seems to have gradually whittled over the years since the original In the Heights—and, later, Hamilton—came out. But something like In the Heights reminds us that no matter how easy it has become to slide into cynicism, there is still something to be said for buoyant optimism and unbridled joy.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its flaws: it does buckle at various points under the weight of all its characters, even having cut out certain plots and songs (sometimes to its detriment: cutting Nina and Benny’s duet “Sunrise” and bypassing certain beats for those two makes their romance less effective than it is on stage—if they are dynamite on Broadway, here they are only some powerful sparklers), and there is a rather ham-fisted plot about DACA that has been clumsily shoehorned in—not that we should keep politics and movies separate (that has always been both silly and impossible), but I do wish these moments had been added with a little more grace. 

But after more than a year of being stuck at home and isolated even within our communities, In the Heights is a breath of fresh air: its cast, in particular Anthony Ramos, is so charming that it’s impossible not to smile; the songs are catchy, the dancing electric, the colors beautiful. And after all the anger and uncertainty we’ve experienced, it feels damn good to go back into a movie theater and laugh, and cry, simply enjoy something with other people.

In the Heights Trailer

In the Heights is currently available to stream on HBO Max and view in theaters.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

90/100

SYNOPSIS: Over a career spanning more than 70 years, Rita Moreno defied both her humble upbringing and relentless racism to become a celebrated and award-winning actor. Born into poverty on a Puerto Rican farm, Moreno and her seamstress mother immigrated to New York City when Moreno was five years old. After studying dance and performing on Broadway, Moreno was cast as any ethnic minority the Hollywood studios needed filled: Polynesian, Native American, Egyptian and so on. Despite becoming the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award for her role as Anita in “West Side Story” (1961), the studios continued to offer Moreno lesser roles as stereotypical ethnic minorities, ignoring her proven talent.

Beyond the racism she experienced as a Latina actor, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” will explore the lesser-known struggles Moreno faced on her path to stardom, including pernicious Hollywood sexism and sexual abuse, a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, and an attempted suicide a year before she won her Oscar. The documentary will demonstrate Moreno’s talent and resilience as she broke barriers and paved the way for new generations of artists by refusing to be pigeonholed and fighting for Latinx representation in a variety of genres.

REVIEW: Rita Moreno is a legend! What other way can you describe a woman who won an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Presidential Medal of Freedom (2004), National Medal of Arts (2009), and Kennedy Center Honors (2015), and Peabody Award (2019)? All these accolades do no justice to the magnitude of the woman. While production-wise the documentary wasn’t remarkable, her story was. Told through a series of vignettes from the likes of Norman Lear, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justice Sotomayor, Eva Longoria, Whoopi Goldberg, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, and countless playwrights and producers.

Rita is a trailblazer. Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, she came with her mother to the US during the Great Depression. From an early age, Rita loved performing and by age 16 she was the sole breadwinner of her family. After making a connection with the head of MGM Studio, Louis B. Mayer, she got a contract and 6 months moved to LA. This transition was not without struggle. People were not nice to her at MGM, she was sexualized, and set up on fake dates to raise her profile. She was also typecast, her skin darkened, and always played the “island girl”. Reflecting on this part of her career she stated that she went along with it at first but, soon after, it started to hurt and took an incredible toll on her self-image and self-worth. At another point, she mentioned how she wanted to turn down these parts, but that’s all she was offered, and she needed the money to survive.

The documentary also details more personal aspects of her life like her relationship with Marlon Brando and her agent who raped her. She reflected that she had so little self-worth at the time that she continued letting him be her agent. This particular moment of the documentary is intercut with images of the trial Christine Blasey Ford and introduces us to Rita Moreno the activist. Rita Moreno is a pro-choice activist. She almost participated in atomic disarmament marches and sat 15 feet away from Dr. King during his famous “I Have Dream Speech” at the March on Washington.

All this is not enough to describe her remarkable career Rita was in Singing in the Rain and got a chance to see Gene Kelly perform live. Rita Moreno is, truly, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. Icon, legend, trailblazer do not do justice to explain what, as a Latina, Rita Moreno means to me. Year and year again trade publications and research papers discuss the under-representation of Latinos in Hollywood. The 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report states “Latinos’ share of lead acting roles was 6.6% on scripted broadcast shows, 5.5% in cable and 4.0% in digital in 2018–19. Among all TV acting roles in the past two years, Latinos’ best representation was in broadcast shows during the 2017–18 season, but even then, they made up just 6.4% of casts.” This is infuriating because the lack of Latino representation in Hollywood is a mirror to the under-representation of Latinos on the US job market in general, even though they make up roughly 17% of this country’s population.

After reading this if you still have any doubts about how kick-ass Rita is go watch her Oscar acceptance speech (an all-time great I might add. Even though she doesn’t agree.) or watch her sing Fever on the Muppets (which won her an Emmy), or that time she re-wore her 1962 Academy Award dress to the 2018 Academy Awards. I could talk about her all day.

All I can do is say thank you, Rita Moreno! Thank you for paving the way for a Latina girl like me. Showing me that women can do anything.

Director Mariem Pérez Riera’s Statement:
The first time I interviewed Rita, I had prepared a series of questions about the biggest moments of her career. As soon as she started speaking, I immediately saw myself reflected in her answers. It was as though I was speaking to a therapist who understood exactly what I had been through. I related to all she was saying: her stories about discrimination, the insecurities she felt because of the way others perceived her, the complicated love relationships, and the constant need to work three times harder to prove to others that she is worthy. It was at that moment when I realized that this movie was not just a biographical documentary of Rita’s life, but a story about all the women who feel alone as they struggle to assert themselves in a patriarchal society rooted in white supremacy.

While listening to her stories I constantly questioned the American Dream. To what extent are we willing to pay the price? Fifty years ago, Rita lived through hardships and experiences that unfortunately many women continue to endure, including myself. So I decided to shift the documentary’s focus to the courage, transformations, and highs and lows of a brave immigrant woman trying to overcome discrimination, hatred, and humiliation. A woman who when speaking about herself, speaks to and for a lot of us.

My goal with this documentary is to show what an amazing inspiration Rita is to all of us. In order to do this, it was important for me to capture Rita’s vulnerable and fragile side when she’s off-stage or off-guard. This is why one of the aesthetic decisions of the documentary was to follow Rita in a verité camera style. We see Rita in her daily life, without makeup, in pajamas, preparing her breakfast, or driving, doing her own hair and makeup, or setting out decorations for her own birthday party.

To me, a biographical documentary should do more than to tell important events in chronological order, it should move you emotionally, and make you feel like you actually know the subject personally. The decision behind every location for all the interviews was highly important to me, as I wanted the space, the environment, and the ambiance to capture Rita’s soul. I selected “vintage” spaces where Rita’s friends and colleagues could be interviewed. The decorations, the colors of the furniture, the warm light for example, should resemble Rita’s taste in some way, and be reflective of a space Rita would decorate for herself.



Another aspect I wanted to explore was Rita’s inner child, Rosita. To capture the duality of Rita and Rosita, I decided to use stop motion animation with paper dolls. These dolls were very popular during Rita’s childhood, and they embody the little girl who has been molded through clothing to “pretend” to be what the outside world wants her to be. Rosita/Rita was accustomed to behaving like a doll with no expression, obliged to accept any garment that is placed on her.

Music also plays a key role in this documentary. In addition to jazz as the basis of the score, the incidental music has many meanings, and I am very grateful to have included my ‘wish list songs’. Songs by Fania All Stars, La Lupe, and Rafael Hernandez’s “Lamento Borincano”; all these songs relate directly and indirectly with Rita’s story.

During the final steps of the editing process, while looking for a song to close the documentary, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, performed by Nina Simone, came to mind. This song, that at the time of its creation became a hymn of the Civil Rights movement, resonates to me like a hymn to Rita’s life. This song, that at the time of its creation became a hymn of the Civil Rights movement, resonates to me like a hymn to Rita’s life. One could ask, how much would she have accomplished if she didn’t have all the limitations (“the chains”) thrown at her because of her race and her gender?

These lyrics take on another meaning when we hear them through the voice of Nina Simone at the end of Rita’s documentary. It helps us understand what it feels like to be Rita, to be an immigrant woman — “who decided to go for it” — despite society’s gender and racial expectations. Rita has finally liberated herself from all those chains that were holding her, she has finally expressed how it feels to be her, and now in her late 80’s Rita is finally able to be herself; flying through her greatest self. Rita’s voice becomes the voice of inspiration of every woman, especially of every immigrant, Latinx in the USA.

Recommended. 

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Sundance 2021 Review: Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Written by Taylor Baker

75/100

Pictured Above: Questlove shooting on location.

SYNOPSIS: Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is the untold story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring never-before-seen performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & The Family Stone and scores of others. The unreleased footage that was
shot that summer sat in a basement for over 50 years, keeping this incredible event in America’s history lost – until now. Summer Of Soul is a joyous musical celebration and the rediscovery of a nearly erased historical event that celebrated Black culture, pride and unity.

REVIEW: While it is a mouthful Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is the first of what I hope will be many Questlove jawns. The assemblage and footage of this summer day from 1969 encompassing the Harlem Summer Festival is deft if not masterful. The content itself touches on the incomparable. This is live music filled with love. Or love music performed live.
Your choice.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Questlove in which he describes why the film was given it’s title and what the trouble is with it’s perceived lateral relationship to Woodstock.


“That footage was definitely the butterfly wing, if you will, that told me it’s
probably in the best interest of this project for us not to call this ‘Black
Woodstock.’ I wanted to call this Black Woodstock, initially, only because so
many culturally Black creations get appropriated, and claimed, and lost to
revisionist history. For the Hal Tulchin quote: It was one of the very last things
that we found. Hearing him describe how heartbreaking it was that this was
unsellable, it was then I felt like we should find a proper title that did it justice.
Not just forever connect it to something that came after it, but received more
credit than it”

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson


At one point early on there’s a comment made that they threw the Harlem Cultural Festival for free to keep the residents of Harlem from setting fires that summer. I couldn’t help but frame that comment against the content of the film. The dozens of times that the musicians sweating furiously in suit jackets or long dresses and tights in the sweltering heat lit everybody up with their music. It’s clear that this festival was a metaphorical fire, and I really like the quick unobtrusive way Questlove alights that thought into the viewer, or at least this viewer.

Picture Above: Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson co-performing “Hear my cry, hear my call / Hold my hand lest I fall”


If you, like me seek a transcendental moment in musical documentaries. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I found two such moments in the picture myself. The first of which is when Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson co-perform “Hear my cry, hear my call / Hold my hand lest I fall”. When Mahalia is standing center stage her mouth agape roaring beautiful notes, the camera framed squarely on her face. Something stirring occurs, a beauty that traverses the image conveyed by sound but can’t be properly explained, only experienced. The second moment comes when Stevie Wonder amidst performing Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day plays a stirring keyboard solo that none of my words could do justice.


For anyone who doesn’t offhandedly know who Gladys Knight, Babatunde Olatunji, or Sly & The Family Stone. This documentary might feel as if one is being taken lovingly by the hand through Questlove’s personal and professional inspirations and like going through a friends older siblings CD’s as a kid, a musical awakening. Clear voiced and sure of itself, Questlove’s Directorial Debut has all the makings of a film that’s distribution rights purchase might come with a first look deal. With an eye for presentation like this it’s unlikely this is the last we’ll see of him.
.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) premiered at Sundance 2021 and has at least one second run screening left on 1/29/21. However, it’s quite likely to win some festival awards, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it included on the Sundance 2021 Festivals Wednesday Award Screenings. At the time of this publishing it does not have a distribution deal or release date.