Despite being an avid fan of Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking, once-in-a-lifetime rock musical Rent in my youth, I never actively looked into his first musical, tick, tick…BOOM!, because I never thought I would be able to see it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found some problems with Rent, especially its film adaptation, which was made by someone who seemed embarrassed of the property’s music, shooting every song in the least interesting way possible and cutting out important moments and/or changing songs to scenes of clunky dialogue. Also, most of the characters in Rent are terrible people, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Lin Manuel Miranda has been everywhere since Hamilton sent him into superstardom, and the film adaptation of tick, tick…BOOM! would become his directorial debut. And this is a perfect example of a director completely enraptured with his source material, with an extreme, theatre-kid enthusiasm for making it the best it can possibly be. And also, Lin’s brought along a lot of his friends.
Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) is a struggling young playwright living in New York City in 1990. In between shifts at the Moondance Diner, he’s struggling to write what he thinks could be the great American musical. His girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) is supportive of his endeavors to a point, and wants him to be realistic about his future. His friends (Robin de Jesús, Mj Rodriguez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ben Levi Ross) are worried about him but perhaps think he’s a bit self involved, considering so many of their friends are being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. In the days leading up to the first showcase of his work in front of potential producers and Broadway legends, Jonathan must decide what really matters in his life, and how to make use of the time he has.
The story of Jonathan Larson is tragic, he died at age 35 of an aneurysm on the day of Rent’s first off-Broadway performance. He would finally go onto reach the success he’d dreamed of his whole life, but he would never know it. And tick, tick…BOOM! operates in a consistent state of melancholy, after narration tells you in the first five minutes Larson’s story does not have a happy ending, but it’s also assuming the viewer has at least a basic knowledge of who Larson was going into it, because there are so many theatre-kid Easter eggs here, so many cameos of renowned Broadway stars and so many references to the musicals that inspired Larson. I think the depiction of the creative process and ambition in a general sense is universal enough for anybody to appreciate, but I definitely think you will get more out of this movie if you have some knowledge or appreciation for musical theatre.
Andrew Garfield has never really been an actor who’s blown me away in anything before. I’d last seen him in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, where, unlike his costar Jessica Chastain, he failed to really disappear into the character and you never forgot you were watching an actor giving a performance. In tick, tick…BOOM!, you forget you’re watching a movie star at about the two minute mark. He’s giving an internal, nuanced, and yet also somehow showy and crackling performance, and it’s undoubtedly the best work of his career. He’s worked incredibly hard to replicate Larson’s mannerisms and body language, and this is absolutely a performance that deserves some serious awards consideration.
The supporting cast here also doesn’t have a weak link, and is full of familiar faces from the Broadway world I immediately recognized, and everyone here is terrific. That’s not even to mention the Sunday number, in which about a hundred familiar Broadway faces show up in the diner for this cathartic, unforgettable number that just kind of healed a part of my soul that had been bruised for the last few months. Needless to say, this number had me sobbing. A lot of this movie did, but it’s a testament to the power of musical movie magic.
Lin Manuel Miranda, in his directorial debut, gives you the impression he’s done this kind of thing many times before. This is a remarkably assured directorial debut, from a filmmaker remarkably confident in his vision. Miranda is kind of doing a love letter to Larson, Rent, and the Broadway community at large. His first feature is also about a hundred times better and more coherent than the Rent movie. In the Heights cinematographer Alice Brooks also shot this, and while I applauded the staging of the musical numbers in that film, this almost looks even better. Miranda and Brooks lean into the surrealism and the dreamlike quality of this piece. You leave really hoping Lin Manuel Miranda continues to direct movie musicals, and also remembering to keep an eye on Brooks, who should absolutely be in the awards conversation this year for one of her two masterworks.
Ultimately, tick, tick…BOOM! is an emotionally cathartic and incredibly specific portrait of one individual artist’s creative process, and is a profound exploration of some more universal questions all of us ponder. What are you truly passionate about, what do you have to give to the world, and what do you truly want to do with the time you have left? These questions linger over tick, tick…BOOM! throughout, and this is an intimate and yet grand character study, as well as a beautifully theatrical musical with extreme universal appeal. It also might be the most successful musical adaptation of 2021.
tick, tick…BOOM! is now streaming on Netflix.