Film

Review: With tick, tick…BOOM, a Very Busy Lin-Manuel Miranda Helms an Entertaining Adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s First Musical

It’s not entirely clear when (or if) Lin-Manuel Miranda sleeps, but really, that’s his personal business. In his very productive waking hours, Miranda has seemingly not stopped creating since moving on from starring in his blockbuster show, Hamilton, in 2016. Since then, he’s produced the filmed version of that show for Disney+ as well as a film adaptation of his first musical, In the Heights; contributed music to two animated films (Vivo and Encanto); and is in post-production on an upcoming live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid. In the midst of all of that, Miranda found his way to the director’s chair for the first time, helming the screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s semi-biographical musical tick, tick…BOOM, now in select theaters and streaming on Netflix. And it turns out, he’s capable of making a pretty decent movie musical, particularly one originally written by a man who, until his untimely death in 1996, might have turned out to be a Lin-Manuel Miranda 30 years before Lin-Manuel Miranda himself.

Tick Tick Boom

Image credit Macall Polay, courtesy of Netflix.

Larson is best known for creating a show that would, after his passing, go on to change the very shape of American musical theater. RENT premiered on Broadway in 1996 and in the 25 years since, it has become a signature work evoking a certain turbulent moment in American life, the turn of a millennium with a deadly virus ravaging the country and burgeoning technology threatening to forever alter our way of life. Smartly, Miranda (and screenwriter Steven Levenson, who also adapted, to much more disastrous results, this year’s Dear Evan Hansen) bookends tick, tick…BOOM around Larson’s real life and RENT launching into the pop culture zeitgeist, giving the intervening story an immediate sense of time and place. Andrew Garfield stars as Jon (whom we know is Larson), an aspiring musical composer who cannot seem to catch a break. As the show opens, he’s about to turn 30 and, without anything near a hit to his name, he’s lamenting his life choices and how fast time flies; opening number “30/90” is an upbeat anthem for heading into adulthood with as much optimism as nihilism.

tick, tick…BOOM is a small production; Larson only ever performed it as a live-read, with two actors taking on the roles of Michael and Susan (and all the other bit parts) and a small band (he was on piano) accompanying them. In 2001, an off-Broadway production finally gave the show a full staging, but even then, the cast remained small and the show only ever toured throughout North America (it did have a West End premiere in London in 2009). In this film version, Miranda gets to blow the lid off that simple interpretation with all the movie magic a Netflix budget will buy, and he takes full advantage. New York City is as much a character in this version as Jon, Michael (Robin de Jesus) and Susan (Alexandra Shipp) are, and the cast itself is built out to a healthy degree as Levenson’s script blurs the lines between Larson’s life and Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM. Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens, Laura Benanti and Bradley Whitford (as a knockout Stephen Sondheim) all pop up in different aspects of Larson’s life as he struggles to find his voice in the week leading up to a potentially career-changing table read of his latest musical. Through it all, this is Larson’s real life we’re getting a glimpse into, albeit through a prism of Larson’s own music, characters and narratives.

Garfield, seen most recently as Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, is exceptional as Larson, delivering a performance so far from anything else he’s done it’s practically a discovery of someone entirely new. As a man at a crossroads, torn between his own ego and ambitions, maintaining his personal relationships and finding some semblance of success in his chosen career, Garfield manages both an anguish and an optimism that radiates off the screen. Whether it’s Miranda’s direction, Garfield’s own chops or a combination of the two, the result is a seemingly effortless on-screen musical performance, a feat much easier said than done. It’s a pleasure to see Garfield embrace the role so fully, and it’s as if his magnetic performance permeates into his castmates, as the entire ensemble rises to the occasion to meet him where he is.

As busy as Miranda’s been the last five years, his foray into filmmaking is on the whole a promising one; he finds more to do here than one might expect, from the story-within-a-story-within-a-story construction to an absolutely breathtaking (literally, I think I stopped breathing!) scene paying homage to Broadway royalty (if you know, you know). He may never be a filmmaker who crafts a taut psychological thriller or a lush period piece, but that’s not his wheelhouse anyway; what he knows is music and musicals, and his passion for—and inherent understanding of—the genre all come through quite strongly in his filmmaking debut. Though it never found the success of RENT, Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM is nevertheless a thoughtful narrative with catchy numbers that gracefully explores timeless themes of self-worth, creativity (realized or not) and the necessity of getting one’s priorities straight sooner rather than later. And now that there’s this winning film adaptation of it, it’s a production that will finally get the kind of audience it deserves.

tick, tick…BOOM is now streaming on Netflix.

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