2021 has been an exceedingly perfect year for modern musicals. We have already been gifted with the vibrant In the Heights and the emotionally rousing Dear Evan Hansen, and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is right around the corner! To my surprise, tick, tick…Boom! may be the cream of the crop. Featuring an awards worthy performance from one of my favorite actors, Andrew Garfield, tick, tick…Boom! avoids the typical biopic formula by laser-focusing on its central character in an almost entirely autobiographical fashion. The film’s exploration of Jonathan Larson’s life and struggles to make it big time in a bustling New York City provide a flavor that could only be realized through on-location filming that showcases several of the city’s locales. Acting as a simultaneous love letter to both Larson himself and NYC, tick, tick…Boom! is truly not to be missed.
Just in case you have been hiding under a rock, Jonathan Larson is the instantly-iconic creator behind Broadway’s Rent. The day the play opened Off-Broadway, Larson tragically died, leaving a legacy of what is considered to be a top tier musical triumph. Originally conceived as a one-man show following the devastating failure of his Broadway-prospective show, Superbia, Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…Boom! is rich and full of biting, self-deprecating humor. The very structure allows thorough exploration of Jonathan; though Rent is not the sole subject, one can feel the influence, shades, and callbacks present in every single moment. Blanketed by catchy rock-opera lyrics, Tony Award Winner Steven Levenson spruced up Larson’s show for a ferocious film script that bubbles with passion.
As a fellow creator, it is virtually impossible to not relate with Larson’s various struggles to achieve success. As he approaches his 30th birthday, this 31 year-old writer found the lyrical narrative to be aching in its truth. It is hard not to feel the ticking of the clock, beckoning one to fulfill their potential. What metric does one use to measure success? For his part, Andrew Garfield embodies Jonathan Larson down to the smallest details. Mannerisms, vocal ticks, physicality, and wardrobe are completely on point. If he does not accumulate a nomination for Best Actor, it will be a snub of the highest order.
Of course, a leading man is only as good as his costars. Jon workshops his creation over and over and over again, his just-for-the-money job at the Moondance Diner becoming more monotonous by the day. The romance he shares with aspiring dancer Susan (Alexandra Shipp) explodes with the fireworks of two actors at the top of their game. It helps that Shipp and Garfield have such outstanding chemistry. Robin de Jesus, fresh off a scene-stealing role (both on stage and cinema) in The Boys in the Band, gives a gay-best-friend turn that is layered with nuances and passion. The touching friendship between Michael and Jonathan lies at the heart of the film. Vanessa Hudgens also impresses, specifically in the kinetic musical sequences. Alexandra Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens share a duet together that is a pure highlight, showcasing big vocal peaks and valleys.
The mounting pressures of a presentation of the musical Superbia in front of mega producers eventually puts the ultimate amount of pressure on Jon. The stakes feel monstrously high. Will Jon choose to follow his longtime girlfriend Susan off to the Berkshires, or will he chase his dreams and fully realize his life’s work? The film’s conflicts wrap around the audience, but never strangles us in their sorrow. Skirting the exact right tone between playful and dramatically moving, tick, tick… Boom! is host to some of the finest modern musical numbers I can recall. My favorite of the bunch is “30/90,” an oddball birthday song that epitomizes exactly how aging feels—in particular, that tender and bizarre bridge between 29 and 30. An upbeat musical scene juxtaposed against an emotionally devastating confrontation late in the movie actually drove me to tears. A diner-set musical number teeming with Broadway references is another clear highlight.
I find it very difficult to believe this is megastar Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut. Sweeping close ups, faux-vintage footage, and stand-up style interludes from Larson to get insight into the characters—Miranda has an incredible grasp on what will work to spruce up the film medium in a way that expands the musical perfection of the stage production that existed previously. A hopeful, tragic, powerful ending closes out tick, tick…Boom! with a memorable bang of emotion. Jonathan Larson will forever be loved and memorialized, but no other work has delved this deeply into the breadth and honesty of the man himself.
tick, tick…Boom! finds the music, in select theaters now and on Netflix November 19th.