tick, tick… BOOM!
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Based on Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical stage show of the same name, tick, tick… BOOM! tells the story of Larson’s experience working on his earlier show Superbia, which was never produced. We see it all unfold in flashbacks and on stage in front of an audience through monologue and musical numbers.
The name Jonathan Larson needs no explanation for musical theater fans, but for those who aren’t he’s best known for creating the smash hit musical Rent, and for his untimely death on the day of its off-Broadway premiere. He’s portrayed in the film by Andrew Garfield. The film also marks the directing debut of another musical theater creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights). The cast also includes Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens, Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry, and MJ Rodriguez. Plus many, many cameos by musical theater veterans, past and present.
It’s already become cliché to call tick, tick… BOOM! a “love letter to musical theater,” but that’s such an apt description it’s hard to get around it. Based on a stage show about creating a stage show; written by one beloved Broadway figure and directed by another; filled to the brim with nods and references and theater-folk cameos—how could it be anything else? The good news for movie audiences at large, though, is that it isn’t just that. Sure, musical theater fans were bound to lose their minds over this film—and boy have they—but you don’t need to be one to appreciate it.
As Larson sings in the catchy opening number “30/90,” he’s anxious about turning 30 (back in 1990, thus the title) and feels like his time is running out to do something big with his life. It’s not hard to identify with the frustrations of chasing a dream, whatever it may be, and feeling your life slipping away from you before you can achieve it. As it turns out, Larson was right, though he couldn’t have known it at the time (or maybe he did somehow sense it—that’s one of the intriguing mysteries of the film, and his life). He would die of an aneurism just six years later, on the precipice of his greatest success, the groundbreaking musical Rent, for which he would receive numerous posthumous awards, including three Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize.
The end of Larson’s story is kind of glossed over in tick, tick… BOOM!—due to the source material being an earlier autobiographical work—but it looms heavy over the film in many respects. There are intentional references to Rent, from old-school answering machine messages (“Speak!”) to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign for the Cat Scratch Club, as well as inherent ones in his evolving musical style and recurring themes. The film feels a little incomplete without this final chapter, but it still packs an emotional punch that’s not soon forgotten.
A lot of that is due Andrew Garfield’s outstanding performance as Larson. He captures the highs and lows of the creative journey with fearless physicality and a constant, humming energy beneath the surface. You can practically feel the music and lyrics bubbling up inside him, trying to burst free. When he dryly tells a guest at his party that he’s “the future of musical theater” it doesn’t come off as a boast but a matter of fact. Yet he also doubts himself and pushes himself and thinks about selling out for a stable job in advertising. And Garfield hits every note, both dramatic and musical (Spider-Man can sing, ya’ll), with absolute precision. It doesn’t hurt that he’s backed up by a fantastic cast, especially de Jesus as Larson’s ex-roommate Michael, who adds a layer of dimension to every scene he’s in.
Other directors may have been able to make a serviceable film out of tick, tick… BOOM! but few could have put as much heart, soul, and reverence into it as Miranda has. For lack of a better word, he makes the work sing. His instincts for when to show a flashback and when to cut back to Jonathan on stage are on point every time. He speaks the language of art—literally and visually—understanding what it’s like to pour yourself into your work completely, to live and breathe it for years not knowing whether it will ultimately fail or succeed, to survive on hope alone. We can go ahead and add directing to his growing repertoire of talents that already include writing, composing, and performing. Having already won Emmy, Grammy, and Tony awards for previous projects, perhaps this will be the one that gets him the “O” statuette on his inevitable EGOT shelf. It may be one of many recognitions (looking at you, Andrew) for this extraordinary film.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Garfield bring Jonathan Larson’s life and work to the screen in a way that’s universal, but will have a special resonance for fans of musical theater.
Creative types and musical theater fans will get the most out of watching this as a group, but even those who aren’t will be able to appreciate the skill and talent at work here. Or watch it by yourself if you want to belt out the songs without feeling self conscious.
The death of Broadway giant Stephen Sondheim, a hero to Larson and a big influence on his work, not long after this film’s release adds yet another layer of pathos to the project in retrospect. Bradley Whitford plays him in the film, with the exception of a voice message on Larson’s answering machine near the end, which Sondheim himself recorded specifically for Miranda (based on an actual message he left for Larson following the Superbia workshop) who will carry on the torch now for both of them. No, I’m not crying, you’re crying.