REVIEW – ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ is the best movie musical of the year

In 1996, the late Jonathan Larson changed the landscape of Broadway with his rock musical Rent. The show would run for 12 years and win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical. In 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda equally rattled Broadway with his rap musical Hamilton. The show has been running for six years and also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical. These two titans of musical theatre combine with Miranda’s feature directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom! and the result is simply spectacular.

A gorgeous love letter to Larson and the chaotic creative process behind pieces of musical theatre, Tick, Tick… Boom! is the best movie musical of the year. Led by a tour-de-force performance from an electrifying Andrew Garfield and brought to life through Miranda’s sharp vision that clearly belongs behind the camera, this is a film that will delight theatre lovers and those who understand the complicated quest to create something of artistic merit.

Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical has experienced a strange history over the last three decades. It was originally performed by the composer as a solo work in 1990 under the title Boho Days. After changing the title, Larson staged Tick, Tick… Boom! at several workshops before his untimely death on January 25, 1996, the day of Rents first preview performance. From here, it was restructured by playwright David Auburn into a three-actor musical that didn’t premiere Off-Broadway until 2001. Miranda himself performed the lead role at a 2014 revival at New York City Center. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Set in 1990 New York City, Tick, Tick… Boom! follows Jon (Garfield), the self-professed “future of musical theatre” living in SoHo who quite literally hears a ticking clock counting the time left before his approaching 30th birthday. A struggling musical theatre composer still searching for his big break and the composition of that one perfect song, Jon is anxious about turning the big 3-0, namely because his theatre heroes like Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) had already staged their first Broadway musical by this age.

His best friend, Michael (a fabulous Robin de Jesús) has given up the acting game for a cushy job at a plush Midtown advertising firm he begs Jon to consider joining as a jingle writer. His supportive dancer girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp) has been offered a gig teaching children in the Berkshires (a quaint region of Massachusetts) and wants Jon to join her. Torn between following his dream and opting for a life of security, Jon seems content to maintain his job at the Moondance Diner while toiling away on his futuristic musical, Superbia, which is set to debut at an important workshop for potential investors that finally arouses the attention of his usually absent agent Rosa (a scene-stealing Judith Light).

Neither Larson’s original production nor Auburn’s adaptation intrinsically lend themselves to a cinematic adaptation. One is a one-man rock monologue. The other is a three-person show where one actor plays Jon and two others perform multiple roles, all accompanied by a live band. Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson use Auburn’s version as a framing device for Jon to tell his story to an audience from the stage which then intercuts with the actual events playing out in typical cinematic style.

It’s a curious construction technique that’s essentially like watching a musical within a musical. Some numbers are performed completely on stage in a stripped-back style with just Jon and his two co-stars, Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) and Roger (Joshua Henry). Others take place within Jon’s real-life storyline like a conventional musical where characters break into song accompanied by fantastical staging. And there are even the occasional moments where the two blend together in either unison or competition. Miranda knows exactly what he’s doing, so it’s all far less chaotic than it sounds.

Still, it’s likely to be a divisive approach that won’t be for everyone, but it does make the film mildly more accessible for those less familiar with the suspension of disbelief required of musicals. By staging the lively opening number “30/90” in an actual theatre as a rock concert performance, it’s not as difficult to accept the first moment Jon begins to sing in “real life.” Miranda could have taken the easy way out and merely had Garfield audibly narrate the entire film, but this blesses everything with a personal touch where Jon is simultaneously remembering and performing his life story as a throwback to the musical’s original production.

Much like Larson’s idolisation of Sondheim, Miranda has long-credited Larson’s Rent as being a seminal piece of theatre that had a profound impact on his life. It’s why he’s the perfect filmmaker to bring this tale to life. Miranda knows all too well the time, energy, and sacrifices it takes to create a great piece of musical theatre. That adoration and respect for the late composer shine through in Miranda’s nostalgic, wistful direction that captures much of the action like one extended home movie of Larson’s life before he created the musical that made him a legend.

Perhaps it’s Miranda’s love of Larson and his art that stops the film from delving too deeply into criticism of the often self-absorbed methods behind his creative process. While Jon eventually acknowledges his failings as a partner and a friend, Levenson’s screenplay tiptoes achingly close to dismissing Jon’s negative behaviour as necessary collateral damage to create the masterworks of art.

But Miranda still intimately understand how inherently selfish and dismissive an artist can be while obsessively labouring away on their latest apparent masterpiece, so he’s wise not to entirely shy away from highlighting Jon’s flaws, particularly his commitment issues with Susan whose support begins to waver as Jon refuses to focus on an important decision in their relationship. It’s typified by an emotional moment between the pair that’s destroyed when Susan painfully comes to realise Jon’s brain is processing how he can turn their private misery into a song.  “Oh my God,” she says. “You’re thinking about how you can turn this into a song, aren’t you?”

In his first time in the director’s chair, Miranda proves it’s a role he was born to take on. His direction is confident and assured with a keen focus on closely capturing the characters’ raw emotions. He’s wisely tapped In the Heights cinematographer Alice Brooks who uses a cavalcade of formats and aspect ratios to bring Miranda’s unique vision to life. Brooks’ movements are clean and fluid, often dancing around the actors as they perform. Miranda’s staging of the musical numbers is naturally where his direction soars, particularly the elaborate “Sunday,” Larson’s tribute to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George which Miranda litters with the most incredible roster of cameos I dare not spoil.

A sensational Garfield confidently leads Tick, Tick… Boom! with one of the year’s greatest performances that puts the actor in strong contention for a Best Actor nomination at this year’s Oscars. If you’re familiar with Larson, you will see Garfield completely disappear into this character to capture the very essence of the eccentric composer. Garfield effortlessly infuses Jon with the composer’s trademark frantic energy, endless charm, and slight egotism who always remains a loveable protagonist even in the midst of his occasionally frustrating behaviour.

Garfield handles the dramatic beats with aplomb as he digs into Jon’s torment at attempting to juggle too many balls at once and often failing to focus on the right one at the right time. He brings such unbridled enthusiasm to Jon that bursts to life when he breaks into song where Garfield’s previously untapped vocal abilities truly shine. He can belt with the best of them, but knows when to bring it down for the quieter, intimate musical moments where Garfield sensitively touches your heart. It’s a dynamic performance that proves Garfield is one of the finest actors working today.

The ever-reliable de Jesús is a delight as the only figure in Jon’s life who knows how to cut through his bullshit and truly ground his best friend. Garfield and de Jesús’ earnest chemistry is on display in the campy number “No More,” where the tuxedo-clad pair literally walk up the walls amidst bursts of glitter like something out of a Golden Age of Hollywood musical. The AIDS crisis creeps into the narrative late in the film, offering de Jesús dramatic scenes that gift the actor the opportunity to steal the film as only he can.

Larson’s original score may not have the fame of the iconic numbers from Rent, but the soundtrack is a cavalcade of toe-tapping rock anthems like “30/90”, playful classic Broadway numbers like “Therapy,” and sweeping ballads “Come to Your Senses,” where Hudgens really gets a chance to dazzle, and “Why,” Jon’s lament over the AIDS epidemic that’s destroying the community he cherishes. But the true highlight is the soaring closing number “Louder Than Words,” which is Larson’s battle cry rejection of inaction in the face of uncertain times that ends with a familiar tune that strangely brought a tear to my eye.

With the sound of ticking omnipresent across the entire film, Tick, Tick… Boom! ponders how much time we have left to do something truly great in life. It’s bittersweet Larson was questioning such a notion at age 29 without realising his time was running out far quicker than he could have imagined. His death at the age of 35 still stings, but his influence remains as strong as ever. Many have positioned Miranda as the heir to Larson’s vacant throne. With his remarkable directorial debut, Miranda honours his idol and proves there really is nothing he can’t do.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens, Bradley Whitford, Mj Rodriguez
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julie Oh
Screenplay: Steven Levenson
Cinematography: Alice Brooks
Production Design: Alex DiGerlando
Costume Design: Melissa Toth
Music: Jonathan Larson
Editors: Myron Kerstein, Andrew Weisblum
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: 11th November 2021 (Australia), 19th November 2021 (Netflix)