Film Review – tick, tick…Boom!
There is a meta quality running throughout tick, tick…Boom! (2021). The musical is based on the off-Broadway production by Jonathan Larson. As some of you may know, Larson was the creator of the smash hit Rent, but sadly passed away right before its big opening night. The film tracks Larson’s life before that time, struggling to get his work picked up by producers, and making ends meet as a waiter in a New York café. There is mention of Larson’s eventual success with Rent, which puts the whole narrative into a fascinating twirl. We have a film about a man writing a musical about himself prior to his death and recognition in popular culture. Now that’s something to wrap your head around!
Another interesting facet is that Lin-Manuel Miranda – currently the biggest name in stage and screen musicals – makes his directing debut here. Miranda has a had a big year so far, with his own production of In the Heights (2021) being released as a movie and Encanto (2021) – which he supplied the music for – due out later this year. With tick, tick…Boom!, we have one Broadway legend paying tribute to another. We’re transported back to 1990, when the cultural landscape of New York City played a major role in Larson’s work. The film acts as a celebration of its subject, the struggle to achieve one’s dreams, and the euphoric highs and depressing lows of the creative process.
It’s a story we’ve seen plenty of times before: A young person moves to the big city to find success only to discover that the real world isn’t as generous as they imagined. This is especially true for The Big Apple, where you can find talented writers, actors, and performers on every street corner. Taking Larson’s lead, Miranda doesn’t shy away from showing us how hard it is to survive while being an artist. This is a place where people live in shabby apartments with leaky ceilings and holes on the floor – where you must walk several blocks to do your laundry and your bathtub is in the middle of your kitchen. I wonder how much of these details resembled Miranda’s own life coming up in the theater world.
There’s a romantic quality about all this – how living meagerly can somehow fuel a person’s creative drive. But for every success story there’s a dozen others that never come to fruition. That is the compromise that faces all the characters here. Working off Steven Levenson’s screenplay, Miranda follows Larson (Andrew Garfield) as he tries to get his latest sci-fi musical workshopped and presented for funding. Larson sees his 30th birthday fast approaching and worries that he may never hit it big. His best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) has given up the theater for a swanky advertising job, and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) feels the temptation to move out of the city. But Larson continues to fight the good fight. Taking inspiration from his hero, Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), Larson focuses squarely on making his lofty goal a reality, with everything else taking a backseat.
Andrew Garfield is electrifying as Larson. He exhibits non-stop energy from beginning to end, with a high wire act that never lets up. His vocal delivery is very strong, able to handle big, rock concert style arrangements as well as traditional show tunes. With frizzled hair and an anxious persona, Garfield inhabits Larson like a mad-genius. He is unable to slow down and relax. He is always pent up – his mind racing a hundred miles a minute. Although events take place prior to Rent, we can see hints and clues circulating around Larson that would eventually lead to his magnum opus. He is constantly jotting notes he refers to later. Of course, there was also the AIDS crisis, which (at the time) was a major issue in the country.
The cinematography (Alice Brooks) and editing (Myron Kerstein, Andrew Weisblum) divides the narrative between two parallel perspectives. The first features Larson and his company performing an intimate, stripped-down version of tick, tick…Boom! (as it was really done). The other visualizes Larson in his everyday life, hustling as a waiter and begging theater producers to give him a chance. The two sides are balanced with a consistent rhythm. This approach has Larson basically narrating what we see on screen, but he isn’t simply describing what is happening but providing additional context. Through his monologues and songs, Larson allows us into his inner thoughts and fears. He questions if he really is as talented as he thought he was, and fears that he will never amount to anything. The title a clear reference to his self-imposed deadline, believing that 30 is turning point between fulfilling your destiny or becoming a failure.
And that might be the weakest part of how Larson is portrayed. While Miranda shows reverence for his protagonist, there is also a narcissism about Larson that is slightly off putting. He shows little concern for his friends and loved ones outside of how they can inspire his writing. He sees Michael’s wealth as a result of capitalism, which he detests. When Susan brings up the subject of moving, he brushes her off. These points of tension are common in stories about people sacrificing for their passion, but the film is oddly forgiving about this. The very same people he hurt in one scene will turn around and show undying support in the next. It was a weird switch that didn’t quite work.
If it weren’t for Garfield’s showstopping performance, the lead character in tick, tick…Boom! may have been too self-centered to root for. Luckily, it never crossed that line. Lin-Manuel Miranda has directed a very good first film, displaying control in tone and style. He could have easily gone over the top (as many musicals tend to do), but instead kept things grounded. He (along with Larson) showed us that art can be painful, glamorous, and thrilling all at the same time.