TICK, TICK...BOOM! (NETFLIX) (2021)
SYNOPSIS: Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his feature directorial debut with tick, tick…BOOM!, an adaptation of the autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, who revolutionized theater as the creator of Rent. The film follows Jon (Academy Award nominee and Tony Award winner Andrew Garfield), a young theater composer who’s waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990 while writing what he hopes will be the next great American musical. Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a make-or-break performance, Jon is feeling the pressure from everywhere: from his girlfriend Susan, who dreams of an artistic life beyond New York City; from his friend Michael, who has moved on from his dream to a life of financial security; amidst an artistic community being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and faces the question everyone must reckon with: What are we meant to do with the time we have?
You’ll need to be a fan of Broadway musical theatre to fully appreciate ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’, which for the uninitiated, was Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical about a young composer struggling to make something great before he turns 30. Initially conceived as a one-man ‘rock monologue’, the meta-musical gained unexpected depth following Larson’s early death at age 35 of aortic aneurysm, and has been hailed as a poignant reflection of the artistic process, not simply of its thrills and trials but also of its sacrifices and sorrows.
Those familiar with Lin-Manual Miranda will understand why the creator of Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’ and ‘In the Heights’ would choose it as his feature filmmaking debut; after all, Larson had profoundly influenced a whole generation of theatre artists with his breakthrough smash ‘Rent’, including Miranda. It should therefore come as no surprise that Miranda intends for his adaptation to be both an ode to his idol Larson and an inspiration to those who are bold and brave enough to chase their big dreams, especially those in the arts.
Together with screenwriter Steven Levenson, Miranda stays true to Larson’s production of ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ as a stage performance, while expanding it for the big screen by recreating key moments of Larson’s real-life struggles as he is prepping his first original musical theatre piece known as ‘Superbia’. The former acts as a framing device for the various episodes we glimpse in the latter, which have been distilled to his preparation for a workshop staging of the high-concept futuristic space-set musical, as well as his relationships with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and his gay childhood friend Michael (Robin de Jesus).
For the most part, the decision to alternate between the on-stage and on-set scenes is inspired and invigorating. In particular, Miranda tends to use the stage for more intimate expressions of Jonathan’s feelings as he navigates the ups and downs of his life, and the sets to stage a number of elaborate music-and-dance sequences which we would come to expect of movie musicals; and in regards to the latter, the standout ones include a duet between Jonathan and Michael called ‘No More’ on the perks of an upscale lifestyle, especially that of living in a luxury apartment-complex, a Sondheim homage called ‘Sunday’ packed with cameos of Broadway legends, and last but not least the ‘Superbia’ showstopper called ‘Come to Your Senses’ that juxtaposes Vanessa Hudgens’ performance of it at the workshop staging with Jonathan’s imagination of Susan singing it for him.
Those familiar with the source material will probably recognise the creative choices which Miranda has taken with his adaptation, including reintroducing the musical number ‘Boho Days’ staged as an energetic routine around Jonathan’s cramped apartment where he is holding a party attended by Susan, Michael and his fellow waiters Freddy and Carolyn, and setting up a scene of Jonathan and Susan quarreling about his indecisiveness and obsession with his career as contrast with the staging of the song ‘Therapy’ performed by Larson and Hudgens. Miranda’s love for Larson’s work is obvious, but his is more than just a slavish recreation for the big screen; instead, Miranda expands it in impressive ways to make sure that it is more than just a three-person black-box theatre piece.
Whilst there is much to love about the playful and energetic first half, we must say it is only in the second half that we truly came to embrace the movie. A scene where Susan realises that Jonathan is using her moment of anguish to channel into a song for Superbia is heartbreaking; so too Jonathan’s discovery that Michael has AIDS, after the pair have a heated argument about Michael’s decision to give up on performing and take on a white-collar advertising job. Miranda lets Jonathan’s emotions rise to the fore during several one-on-one scenes in the latter half, and by doing so, gives Jonathan’s endeavour added emotional heft.
That ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ is such a blast is testament to Andrew Garfield’s brilliant performance, whose achievement is all the more profound given how he had until now not done any musical work in film. Garfield digs deep into Jonathan’s creative struggles and conflicted emotions, brimming with enthusiasm, sincerity and commitment at every turn. The supporting ensemble is excellent in their own respective ways, but as the very subject of the movie, Garfield acquits himself in such a wonderful and engaging way that carries the film effortlessly from start to finish.
We must admit that we thought Miranda had taken the easy way out by choosing to make his motion picture directing debut on ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’; and yet, after seeing what he has accomplished, we must say it is ultimately an inspired one. It is deeply personal in more ways than one for Miranda, not least for having played the role of Jonathan in a stage production before, and it offers new possibilities to tell the story about believing in your passion, preserving despite the odds, and making a life that matters. Like we said, it will take a Broadway fan to fully grasp the nuances and details in Miranda’s film, but even if you’re not, there’s no reason you won’t be moved by this portrait of grit, determination and passion..
Review by Gabriel Chong