Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of RENT creator Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiography boasts fantastic tunes, solid direction, frustrating storytelling, and one of the year’s finest lead performances.
New York City. January 29th, 1990. Composer and playwright Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) turns 30 at the end of the week. SUPERBIA, the dystopian science fiction musical he’s spent most of a decade writing, is about to have its first-ever full workshop. It’s a critical moment for Jon, one that could well make his career (or break it irreparably). If SUPERBIA bombs, Jon will be washed up before he ever set out to sea. To crank up the pressure, the show is missing a critical song, a tune that the whole affair will turn on.
To push further into the red, Jon’s relationships with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) are fraying—and that’s mostly on him. And this is 1990. The AIDS crisis is raging, cheered on by dead-eyed, evil men like Jesse Helms. Jon has lost too many friends, too many of them younger than he is.
In the back of Jon’s head, he’s hearing ticking. A countdown to what he isn’t sure, but he’s certain cannot be anything good. A revelation? A resignation? An explosion? Silence? tick, tick, tick… Whatever happens to Jon in the coming week, there’s no going back. The world only spins forward.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! (for the sake of typographical simplicity tick tick BOOM! from here on in) is a very good movie that could have been fantastic but for a storytelling decision that is understandable, but hamstrings a key part of the picture. With that said, what works? It works damn well.
First and foremost, Garfield is phenomenal as Jon Larson. Aside from mimicking the actual man’s style and body language, Garfield captures the thoughtful, self-interrogative spirit of the original tick, tick…Boom! (a semi-autobiographical one-man show Larson performed in the early 1990s, which was re-worked into a three-person musical in 2001 and then re-worked again for this film). He’s a passionate, driven man capable of deep and genuine love who’s more than willing to do the work that comes with his calling. He’s also selfish, blinkered, and prone to driving himself into spirals rather than confronting things. And throughout tick tick BOOM! he’ll come perilously close to unraveling.
Whether Jon is shining or looking up and seeing the anvil of truth descending upon him, Garfield makes him feel real. It’s a performance that reminds me a bit of Kristen Stewart’s stupendous turn as Diana of Wales in Spencer, a performance that builds Jon as feeling as much as recreation. He’s also, to my admittedly untrained ear, a pretty solid singer—especially considering that tick tick BOOM! is the first time he’s sung professionally.
And tick tick BOOM! has such songs to sing. Whatever else may be said about Jonathan Larson’s successes and failures as a creative, the guy could write a tune. tick tick BOOM! is an eclectic show, opening with a banger of rocking anxiety in “30/90” and jumping everywhere a pounding ode to life in a non-crummy apartment (“No More“) to a passive-aggressive argument by way of country (“Therapy“) to a few classic heart-rippers. There’s not a bad tune in the bunch, and aside from Garfield, Miranda’s cast includes a gaggle of talented singers, including de Jesús and Vanessa Hudgens. In other words? tick tick BOOM!‘s soundtrack is very easy to replay.
As a first-time theatrical director, Miranda acquits himself pretty well. He choreographs the dance between tick tick BOOM!‘s music and its camera skillfully, sculpting its images to the rhythm and feel of each song. This is best seen in the “Therapy” sequence, where Miranda and editors Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum track the increasingly frantic pinballing of Garfield and Hudgens’ expressions as the song ramps up and up, only to suddenly cut from that hilarity to the close-in rawness of Shipp and Garfield arguing. It’s very fine work, work that uses the dissonance between the song and the fight to enhance both. There are moments that slip into the overly precious and winky, but not too many.
Where tick tick BOOM! stumbles for me is in its storytelling and scripting—chiefly the decision to frame the film as a full-blown biographical sketch rather than a semi-autobiography, to make Garfield “Jonathan Larson” as opposed to “Jon.” While the film opens with a cheeky declaration that it is a true story except for the parts that Larson made up, it very much wants to be a tribute to and study of the man. But setting up tick tick BOOM! as a story about “the Real Jonathan Larson”, rather than a story that Larson himself told (as in show’s original rock monologue form) or a story about a semi-fictionalized Jon (as is the case in its full musical form) leaves the resulting picture a bit threadbare in places.
Shipp and de Jesús do very fine work as Susan and Michael, but their stories lack the specificity of Jon’s. In tick tick BOOM!‘s earlier incarnations, the intimacy/fictionalization of the narrative’s construction (it’s very much about Jon’s headspace, and while the details of his life are specific, the feelings they invoke are more important than their granularity) meant that their characters did not need the same level of detail that Jon’s did. tick tick BOOM! the film explicitly making Jon into Jonathan Larson and taking such care with his presentation undercuts the very play it’s adapting by unbalancing the text.
At its weakest, tick tick BOOM! is like pasting an elegant realist portrait in the middle of a gorgeous bit of cartooning. Both can be splendid on their own, but without precision, the resulting combination will be more of a moosh than a transformation.
The dissonance between the portions of tick tick BOOM! that want to be a biography of Jonathan Larson and the portions that want to be an adaptation of his work is distracting, and significantly so. It’s a creative misfire born from good intentions (wanting to pay tribute to Larson’s life), but it’s a big enough problem to keep the picture from being full-on great. With that said, what clicks in tick tick BOOM! really clicks. Larson’s music was terrific on stage and it’s terrific on film. Miranda, minus a few overtly precious moments, proves himself a skilled filmmaker.
And Garfield. man. What a turn. Even by his usual high standards (he’s one of the very few actors who can match a fully dialed-in and locked-on Nicolas Cage for generating a feeling with a role), his Jonathan Larson really is a splendid turn—it’s one of the best male leading performances of 2021. If tick tick BOOM! had nothing else to recommend it, Garfield would be worth the time alone. But tick tick BOOM! has a great deal to recommend it. It’s a very good film, one I’m glad to have seen.
tick, tick…BOOM! is now playing in select theaters and arrives on Netflix on November 19th, 2021.