Jonathan Larson remains the hero of theater kids everywhere, even twenty-five years after his death. Obviously, Rent, the show he died making, became a cultural phenomenon and household name. But to the hardcore theater nerds, it was his one-man show, later reassembled as a full piece to capitalize on his post-mortem fame, that captured their hearts and minds. After all, there’s nothing starving artists love more than a story about a starving artist making it big. For years, that one-man show, titled tick, tick…boom! was considered unfilmable, and for that reason, most theater fans were skeptical when overly earnest Lin-Manuel Miranda announced he would be making his directorial debut on the infamously acerbic piece. As it turns out, they needn’t have worried. Whether it’s because it takes one wunderkind to understand the mind of another wunderkind, because of Miranda’s knack for taking risk, or because the Hamilton writer has never hesitated to lean into his own nerdiness, I don’t know. But tick, tick…boom! isn’t just the best musical of this year (by a longshot). It is one of the best of its genre, and one of the year’s finest outings altogether.
In 1990, Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) is turning 30. He has not accomplished a single one of his dreams as a musical theater composer. He lives in squalor, albeit with the love and support of his childhood best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) and girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp). In five years, he will write one of the most famous musicals of all time. In six years, he will be dead. But for now, he desperately hopes to accomplish a singular goal: to finish writing, and eventually produce, his passion project, a dystopian musical titled Superbia. As the show’s workshop debut approaches, Susan presses him with an ultimatum, Michael comes to him with shocking news, and his own birthday hangs overhead, Jonathan can’t help but hear an ominous ticking sound – the sound of destiny, the sound of failure, and the sound of mortality.
tick, tick…boom! is a classic tale at its core: the story of a creative type trying to grapple with immense genius yet unable to find the acclaim deserved. Now, this is an age-old story – I can think of All That Jazz and Inside Llewyn Davis as offshoots of this story off the top of my head – and if you don’t walk the line very carefully, it becomes yet another Troubled Genius story, which no one wants. Yet Miranda and Steven Levenson’s script (which, for the record, is an astonishing accomplishment in the wake of the terrible Dear Evan Hansen) manages to walk that thin line remarkably well. Boom has a vivid understanding of that indescribable, inescapable fear within the artistic community: that f*cking fear of turning 30 without having accomplished anything. It’s a fear that’s succinctly defined in the film’s energetic opening number “30:90” and fleshed out more deliberately as the film goes on. It’s a fear that almost any artist can understand – and as a struggling writer in my late 20s looking down this dark tunnel, it certainly hits close to home.
Miranda utilizes Larson’s original script and his own directorial flourishes to bring these struggles to life, finding new and (occasionally) humorous ways to break down fears and anxieties. In one scene, Jonathan spends an entire night trying to write a song while suffering from writer’s block, spending hours trying to figure out the right “your” while the ticking sound gets louder. In a later scene, both the terror and the seductive nature of selling out can be seen as Jonathan participates in a focus group where everyone praises him as a genius before slowly revealing the insanely toxic product he’d be selling (all the while the music rising and falling with Jonathan’s moods).
Yet what’s most essential about the storytelling is Miranda’s ability to portray Jonathan’s journey with a sense of honesty. The film does not let the Larson character’s jackassery slide – he is, from beginning to the climax, a self-centered jerk who is willing to overlook his own friends’ mortality on his short-sighted quest for fame. However, while this is often a trope inside the genre – the hero is a bit of a jerk, but he becomes famous, so maybe he succeeded because he’s a jerk – Boom cuts that narrative down outright. For all his flaws and failures, Larson doesn’t succeed. He isn’t able to find success until he overcomes his own failures, and even then he still never succeeds during his lifetime. The film outright denies the use of cliches or glorification to tell Larson’s story, and it makes for a richer narrative.
Thankfully, in spite of Larson’s many cinematic flaws, Miranda and Garfield successfully keep Larson likable in spite of his flaws. Every time Larson fails, he does so in an impeccably human way that everyone can relate to. And there’s just enough charisma in the script and in Garfield’s performance that we can’t help but root for him, even as he consistently fails us. A major part of this likability comes from the fact that while Jonathan is your typical neurotic self-aggrandizing writer, his fears aren’t entirely baseless. While Jonathan is straight, he’s an artist living in New York in the late 80s. All his friends are dying – and dying young.
Even if Jonathan is unaware that he himself will die young, that sort of mentality would take a toll on anyone. Furthermore, the film plays something of a mental trick on its viewers – one that would be infuriating if not executed so well. By making viewers aware of Jonathan’s death from the beginning, his fears have an (admittedly unearned) sense of justification. While characters like Michael and Susan berate him for the pomposity of claiming to “run out of time” while his friends are literally “running out of time,” we as an audience know that Larson’s time eventually did run out. It allows us to give him a lot more leeway than so many other struggling artists we’ve witnessed in cinematic history.
Of course, while the film’s story is certainly strong, and can carry the film on its own, it isn’t the film’s only merit. Hell, I’d argue that the film’s greater accomplishment is not telling Larson’s story, but the way it delivers a movie musical that, for the first time in a long time, doesn’t feel driven by nostalgia or homage. La La Land is one big Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers homage. And while In The Heights had some flashy numbers that were mostly original, even it mostly owed to the legacy of Busby Berkely and Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof. Here, I can’t think of a similar musical being ripped off or alluded to during these numbers (ok, there’s certainly a bit of Chicago in the editing and structure, but certainly not in the musical numbers).
It helps that every song is excellent – top tier bangers, if I do say so myself – but the strength of the music doesn’t always translate to the big screen. Every song in Rent is a masterful achievement, yet that film flopped horrifically. In fact, tick, tick…boom! feels like the film Rent should have been, if Chris Columbus hadn’t tragically and outrageously dropped the ball. Each song has a sense of whimsical fun mixed with angry angst. “30:90” establishes the film’s narrative structure, while “Therapy” plays with the juxtaposition of the anger of a moment and the emotion of memory. Other songs, like “Why” and “Real Life” simply emphasize the reality of life and let Garfield and de Jesús sing their hearts out in moments of aggressive agony. In fact, the only number that suffers from the direction is, sadly, the climactic ballad “Come To Your Senses.” As Jonathan’s “magnum opus,” the song is meant to be an emotional payoff, but because Miranda cuts between both female leads just standing in place singing, it takes away the dramatic tension and undercuts both their performances. It’s beautifully sung, just not the knockout it could have been.
There’s one sequence in particular that I want to write about, in terms of its stunning execution, the cleverness of the writing (both Larson’s and Levenson’s), and the way it emphasizes what this film does so well. Midway through the song, there is a sequence titled “Sunday,” in which, shortly after watching a production of Sunday In the Park With George, Jonathan laments that he’s trapped in a dead-end job while the world crumbles around him and his dream slips away. In his mind, he composes his own number based on Park’s iconic Act I finale, which he conducts with the diners around him. This is already a great premise – a satire of a Sondheim-level genius caught in a dead-end job, and a demonstration of Larson’s ability to craft legendary stories out of the everyday working class.
But what Miranda brilliantly does is stack the scene with a who’s who of Broadway – many of whom artists that either worked with or were inspired by Larson himself, having had doors opened by Rent’s success. Without having to Google it, I noticed André de Shields, Joel Grey, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, Beth Malone, Laura Benanti, Bernadette Peters, Roger Bart, the women of Hamilton, and the original cast of Rent. It’s a stunning tribute to what Larson managed to accomplish and who he managed to touch in his life. It bridges the gap between Sondheim’s old guard and Larson’s new guard. But it also demonstrates the film’s ability to embrace its own theatricality. One of the biggest flaws of this year’s movie musicals (Hansen and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in particular) was the staginess of the dialogue. Here, the dialogue is just as stagey and cheesy (lines that work onstage don’t necessarily translate to the big screen). But by leaning into the unpolished dialogue as a part of the story, and earnestly embracing the Broadway of it all, the film almost forgives these shortcomings, emerging from the other side unscathed.
I almost don’t want to praise Miranda as a director. At this point, it’s almost infuriating how good he is at almost everything (except for British accents in Mary Poppins Returns). And yet, here he is. Demonstrating a talent for filmmaking his first time out. Miranda has a vision for how this film should look and feel, and he executes it to perfection. The staged sequences have a loose, theatrical feel that juxtaposes perfectly with the frenetic energy of real life. Speaking of that stage production framing device, it actually allows for Miranda to use that outdated technique known as voiceover in a way that doesn’t feel forced – I hate him for that.
The editing by Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum remains quick and energetic, while the cinematography by Alice Brooks, while not as immersive as In The Heights earlier this year, is every bit as playful. There are some terrific sequences capturing Jonathan’s vivid imagination, including a humorous shot where a fancy apartment building is much bigger and much cleaner than in reality – a fair juxtaposition to their squalid Bohemian apartment. And while it obviously had to appear somehow, kudos to the sound team for preventing the ticking from becoming cloying or forced, only emphasizing it whenever Jonathan is stressed or confronted with others’ success. It’s a well-constructed film, and you have to credit Miranda for that, both for constructing the team and executing the vision.
Of course, Lin is far less the impetus of success when compared to Andrew Garfield’s towering central performance. This may be Garfield’s best work to date – a concoction of twitchy energy looking to burst forth from his thin, neurotic frame. Garfield is electrifying in the role, giving each performance his all while making sure to walk that thin line between pompous and likable. Many a legendary performer can tell you that that’s a tough needle to thread – sometimes nigh impossible. Almost every monologue he delivers feels poignant and relatable in spite of Jonathan’s flaws, including an incredibly delivered speech about the stress of having two friends dying, your girlfriend giving you an ultimatum, struggling to finish a song, and still having to work a psychotic shift at your sh*tty day job. Garfield’s performance is matched only by his singing voice, which should not be as good as it is for an untrained performer. It’s the type of performance that can make or break a film like this, and Garfield makes it many times over.
The rest of the cast is just as effective, even if they don’t quite reach the heights of Garfield’s performance (that said, they don’t have to. This is based on Larson’s one-man show – Larson is the only role you have to nail). Robin de Jesús is fantastic as the sell-out best friend; effortlessly funny and supportive, and yet his trained voice gives his musical number both a boost and a poignancy when needed. Meanwhile, Alexandra Shipp is a star in the making – she is radiant beyond belief, the camera loves her, and she’s a great actress and singer to boot. Susan’s a bit of an underwritten character, yet is continuously elevated by the very nature of Shipp’s charisma.
As Jonathan’s go-to performers, both Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens provide a great amount of energy as Jonathan’s backing vocals, even if their characters aren’t exactly fleshed out – although I will say in her two major numbers, Hudgens is a real blast as Karessa. Judith Light has a memorable cameo as Jonathan’s agent, while MJ Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross round out Jonathan’s friend group with aplomb. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Bradley Whitford, who is so good in a brief cameo as legendary composer Steven Sondheim. Whitford has Sondheim’s mannerisms down to a T, eliciting laughs left and right – especially opposite Richard Kind as a schmuck of a yes man. It’s a cast of no weak links – the best kind of ensemble there is.
tick, tick…boom! is a love letter to theater, to musicals, and to art in general. It is a critique of the “great artist” narrative that still celebrates creative genius, and a rollicking musical in its own right. Perhaps I was always susceptible to this film’s charms – the right age, the right career, and the right love of musical theater. Yet even if I wasn’t all those things, I think I still would be suckered in, thanks to Miranda’s filmmaking, Larson’s music, and Garfield’s towering performance. Boom will land amongst audiences of all ages and backgrounds, but will particularly hit home with drama departments nationwide, as a tribute to the craft they love and a kindred spirit lost all too soon.
tick, tick…boom! is now streaming on Netflix, as well as playing in select theaters nationwide