How much time do we have to do something great?
That is not only the tagline, but the central conflict of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut Tick, tick… BOOM! which is based on a musical by Jonathan Larson, the creator of RENT. Tick, tick… BOOM! is autobiographical; it stars Andrew Garfield as Larson himself as he is about to workshop his first musical, but feels the pressure of time running out, especially as his 30th birthday approaches. Larson tragically died at the age of 35, a day before his best-known and loved rock musical RENT was supposed to premiere off-Broadway and Larson never saw his masterpiece come alive in front of an audience.
Miranda is a well-known presence on screen as well as on stage. His style is flashy and many find his public persona too wholesome and bubbly, so it’s rather surprising just how melancholic and held back Tick, tick… BOOM! is. Tick, tick… BOOM! isn’t as accessible as RENT, it barely follows a narrative outside of Larson trying to finish his musical Superbia. The film plays like a stream of Larson’s consciousness; it flows in and out of scenes, moods and spaces, sometimes without focus but always with purpose. Sometimes the film feels, by design, as aimless as Larson does, hopping from scene to scene but it brilliantly captures the devastating thought of your life and work not amounting to anything meaningful.
Garfield is electric as Larson, capturing the writer’s infectious lust for life and joy. Garfield has never sung before on camera, but his vocal range is seriously impressive. There is something infinitely boy-ish about his messy hair (a trademark of the real Larson) and lanky build and Garfield’s ability to throw himself not only into Larson’s immense talent as a writer, but his flaws as a human being is impressive and compelling. Garfield completely disappears into Larson and it’s impossible to tell where Garfield ends and Larson begins, so immersive and comprehensive is Garfield’s committed performance.
The supporting characters almost get drowned out by the sheer noise and busyness of Miranda’s film as well as Garfield’s ecstatic, big performance. Robin De Jesus is impressive as Larson’s best friend Michael, but the film’s female characters are perhaps served less well. Alexandra Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens still bring a lot of warmth into a film that could otherwise be frustratingly distant. Bradley Whitford is a pleasant surprise in a small role as legendary Broadway writer Stephen Sondheim, nailing the legend’s physical traits.
Miranda infuses the film with a certain restlessness. Larson rarely sits still, as if he might miss a sudden, fleeting moment of inspiration and brilliance if he allows himself to rest and in many ways, Tick, tick.. BOOM! is an exhausting watch with its constant need to keep the narrative moving. But whereas many musicals rely solely on utopia and spectacle, Tick, tick… BOOM! is here to make you question and re-evaluate your life. We’re all either a Michael, a Susan or a Jon; we’ve all had dreams of grandeur but we’ve either given them up for financial stability, had to readjust them or like Larson, chased them feverishly, at the expense of our private lives.
Tick, tick… BOOM! won’t be for everyone. Its challenging, scattered form and mix of depressing realism and injections of utopia might prove alienating for most musical fans, but for fans of RENT and Jonathan Larson, Tick, tick… BOOM! is a fascinating deep dive into the mind of a talented musical writer who struggled as much as he soared. This is a brilliant, urgent, captivating and thoroughly enjoyable exploration of creativity and life as well as a celebration of Larson’s talent. It is an immense pleasure and a privilege to witness Larson’s work on the big screen once again.
Tick, tick… BOOM! is in cinemas November 12 and streams on Netflix November 19.