Tick, Tick…Boom! (2021)
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Why do you write like you’re running out of time, Jonathan Larson? With the benefit of hindsight, director Lin-Manuel Miranda can pose this question, in the vein of the “Hamilton,” about future “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson. The playwright, however, didn’t know when he was writing his 1990 musical “Tick, Tick…Boom!” that his time was indeed running out. In 1996, he would suddenly die from an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 35. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is a semi-autobiographical musical that Larson wrote originally as a one-man production in 1990. After Larson’s death, the show was expanded to include more cast members and a narrative structure. Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson made the movie adaptation like Dr. Frankenstein assembling his monster—blending Larson’s one-man show with the later version, and then adding in some new scenes based on Larson’s real life.
It’s 1992, and Larson (Andrew Garfield) is on stage with a band and two singers (Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry) delivering his rock-monologue “Tick, Tick…Boom!” This is where Miranda and Levenson began working their magic. Instead of keeping the monologue structure of the musical, they flash back to the times Larson is describing on stage. We only occasionally cut back to the 1992 timeline—the bulk of the film shows scenes beginning in 1990. At that time, Larson (or, rather, the semi-autobiographical Larson from “Tick, Tick…Boom!”) is struggling to finish his space-set rock musical “Superbia,” while fighting to keep the lights on in his apartment and also keep his relationship with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) afloat. With a big preview set for “Superbia,” he still needs to finish one final song. The desperate race to the finish line will jeopardize just about every relationship he has…but in the name of world-changing art, will it all have been worth it?
Netflix didn’t do a great job describing “Tick, Tick…Boom!” to the public. Leaning instead on the fact that Larson was the writer of “Rent,” they didn’t make it especially clear that their movie wasn’t a biopic but was instead an adaptation of one of Larson’s other works. Those looking for the story behind the making of “Rent” will probably be disappointed. But personally, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in its place. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is a well-written story of a struggling artist torn between his desire to write the next great American musical and keeping up with literally anything else in his life. It’s about an artist who only has a few more years left to work with. Did Larson feel symptoms of the condition which would eventually kill him? The “tick, tick” in the title refers to a sound he seems to hear constantly. How eerily prescient that it would be his ticker that would be the cause of his early passing? To know that he died before seeing “Rent” performed publicly makes it all sadder. For a writer who (if his character in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is really a reflection of himself) craved the validation of public acceptance of his work, to have never seen his biggest show become a hit is a real tragedy.
The movie succeeds largely thanks to Andrew Garfield’s performance. The Best Actor contender commands the screen with tons of personality. Garfield has never been afraid to do what it takes for a role, and making himself look like a fool to play the perpetually goofy playwright is no problem for him. Watch him perform “Therapy” with Vanessa Hudgens while he acts out an argument with his girlfriend (Shipp). It’s actually mesmerizing. And he can sing pretty well, too! There’s hardly a weak spot in this cast, though. Shipp is an empathetic actress with amazing talent. And one watches Vanessa Hudgens and wonders why she’s been relegated to Netflix original Christmas rom-coms instead of the leading role in, say, “La La Land” or any other major musical from the past decade.
I’ve seen just fewer than 50 new movies so far this year, but “Tick, Tick…Boom!” lands at the top of my list so far. It’s a compelling musical about the life of an artist as told through the thoughts of the artist himself. On the strength of Garfield’s performance, especially, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is a hit.