Tick, Tick… Boom!
Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his filmmaking directorial debut with this passionate tribute to Jonathan Larson, as based on the 'Rent' composer's own one-man rock monologue.
November 11, 2021
UPDATE, November 19, 2021: Tick, Tick… Boom! screens in select Sydney cinemas from Thursday, November 11, and streams via Netflix from Friday, November 19.
"Try writing what you know." That's age-old advice, dispensed to many a scribe who hasn't earned the success or even the reaction they'd hoped, and it's given to aspiring theatre composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield, Under the Silver Lake) in Tick, Tick… Boom!. The real-life figure would go on to write Rent but here, in New York City in January 1990, he's working on his debut musical Superbia. It's a futuristic satire inspired by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it's making him anxious about three things. Firstly, he hasn't yet come up with a pivotal second-act song that he keeps being told he needs. Next, he's staging a workshop for his debut production to gauge interest before the week is out — and this just has to be his big break. Finally, he's also turning 30 in days, and his idol Stephen Sondheim made his Broadway debut in his 20s.
Tick, Tick… Boom! charts the path to those well-worn words of wisdom about drawing from the familiar, including Larson's path to the autobiographical one-man-show of the same name before Rent. And, it manages to achieve that feat while showing why such a sentiment isn't merely a cliche in this situation. That said, the key statement about mining your own experience also echoes throughout this affectionate movie musical in another unmissable way. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn't write Tick, Tick… Boom!'s screenplay; however, he does turn it into his filmmaking directorial debut — and what could be more fitting for that task from the acclaimed In the Heights and Hamilton talent than a loving ode (albeit an inescapably overexcited one) to the hard work put in by a game-changing theatre wunderkind?
If this was a case of telling viewers that this is Miranda's movie without telling them, the concept would obviously do the trick. So would a few notable cameos in a standout song-and-dance number that's best discovered by watching. There's plenty in Tick, Tick… Boom! that was already layered with musical theatre history before it became a film, too; in the source material, Larson even wrote in a homage to Sondheim's own musical Sunday in the Park with George. That's the level of insider knowledge that's a foundation here, and the film frequently reverberates in an insular, theatre-obsessive, spot-the-references register. As great as it is if you stan the same productions and people, it also makes Tick, Tick… Boom! less accessible and resonant. It's as if Miranda can't choose between indulging his own adoration or truly sharing that love with his audience. (Tick, Tick… Boom! also became a three-person stage musical in 2001, and Miranda played its lead in a 2014 revival opposite Hamilton's Leslie Odom Jr and In the Heights' Karen Olivo.)
Garfield's sing-to-the-rafters version of Larson is first seen in faux home-video footage, performing the rock monologue iteration of Tick, Tick… Boom!, his bouncy hair waving about as he croons and plays piano. Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) then segue between the lively presentation and the tale it also tells about Superbia, the looming workshop and the impending birthday. In the latter scenes, Larson can't come up with the missing song, earn enough as a composer to keep the power on, or juggle his pursuit of his dream with the complexities of his personal life. The alternative: opting for a safe career, which his ex-actor ex-roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus, The Boys in the Band) has done in advertising, and his dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp, X-Men: Dark Phoenix) is contemplating with teaching.
Selling out is the villain here, but while there might've been bite to that idea in 1990, when Tick, Tick… Boom! debuted off-off-Broadway, there's far less in a film that's also an origin story for a famous theatre name. Recognising this, Miranda and Levenson start the feature not just with nods to Rent's success — the reason that Larson's dilemma is absent tension in the first place — but also with the tragic news that their subject died on the morning of Rent's first off-Broadway preview performance in January 1996. The passage of time indicated by the movie's moniker takes on an added dimension as a result, as does all the on-screen frenzy about making it before it's too late. Wanting to succeed now, and to savour every moment, also gets another refrain in a HIV subplot, albeit in a more cursory and gratuitous fashion than Larson must've originally intended.
Still, when Tick, Tick… Boom! works, it's largely due to its energy — more so than its attempts to hit huge emotional beats. There's no mistaking the two wellsprings of experience that are so crucial to the film, with both Larson and Miranda working with what they knew or know, but that echoes loudest is the frantic and urgent atmosphere. The movie plays like something that desperately had to come to fruition, both in Miranda's quest to pay tribute, and in Larson's initial efforts to turn his Superbia experience into something creatively meaningful. The feature's seemingly non-stop musical numbers bound across the screen with that type of attitude, and Miranda unsurprisingly has the eye and timing to stage them with flair.
Perhaps Garfield's on-screen fortunes sum up Tick, Tick… Boom! best, though; he's always on, eager and singing with his fullest voice, and also always putting on a forceful performance. He impresses with his commitment and gusto, yet is less convincing at finding nuance in Larson's frustrations, the daily grind of trying to start his career, and in his relationships. Trying to do too much and swing too big isn't the worst thing that a film and a lead portrayal can do, especially in a stage-to-screen musical that also doubles as an exuberant eulogy — and weaves in a Rent origin story of sorts via its protagonist's everyday life, too — but it's still noticeable. It's clearly a case of art imitating life, with Larson's enthusiasm for the art form he cherished so feverishly coming through strong; however, it also always feels like a show.
Top image: Macall Polay/Netflix.