It hasn't been often in 2021 that I've found myself absolutely in love with every single moment of a film, however, this is very much the case with Lin-Manual Miranda's directorial debut tick, tick...Boom!, a vibrant and alive long song of a film starring Academy Award nominee and Tony Award winner Andrew Garfield as the late theater composer Jonathan Larson.
For those unfamiliar with the name Jonathan Larson (Really?), Larson was the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize wnning composer of Broadway's landmark rock opera Rent, though Larson himself would never learn of the show's success as he died from a previously misdiagnosed aortic dissection on the day Rent's first Off-Broadway preview performance. This film, it should be noted, is not about Larson's death or even Rent itself but is an adaptation of Larson's autobiographical production that he would call originally call Superbia but would come to be known as tick, tick...Boom!
So, while you may be expecting a sense of melancholy to envelope tick, tick...Boom!, quite the opposite actually happens.
Garfield is extraordinary as Larson, here seen as a nearly 30-year-old composer still struggling for his big break while navigating life, love, friendship, and pressures both real and imagined living as an artist in New York City. With no prior singing history, Garfield hits a home run here with a performance that is inspired and fun, larger than life and surprisingly intimate. Reportedly cast because Miranda saw Garfield's Tony Award-winning performance in Broadway's Angels in America revival, Garfield beautifully captures the life of a young theater composer whose prolific nature came to light even moreso after his death and whose now established Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation continues to provide life-supporting grants for up-and-coming stage composers and creators.
Quite simply, tick, tick...Boom! is a love song for the theatrical life and those who choose to live it.
As I wrte this review, I'm only moments after learning that one of Larson's greatest supporters and inspirations, Stephen Sondheim, has passed away at the age of 91. Played here by Bradley Whitford, Sondheim would be one of Larson's strongest advocates and Larson, in turn, created the tick, tick...Boom! song "Sunday" as a Sondheim homage with a thematic twist.
For the record, Whitford is absolutely sublime here.
Adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson, tick, tick...Boom! manages to capture the magic that Levenson's other adaptation for the year, Dear Evan Hansen, simply couldn't quite nail despite the latter being a much better production than it was given credit for. As a longtime and mostly failed creator myself, tick, tick...Boom! captures wonderfully why that creative spark once lit can't be extinguished or at least shouldn't be extinguished.
There's so much I loved about tick, tick ... Boom! from Garfield's emotionally honest exuberance to the spotlight on the iconic SoHo diner Moondance (including a breathtaking cameo scene!) to perfectly staged musical sequences that weave together a marvelous theatrical tapestry while also taking advantage of all the benefits of cinema. Alexandra Shipp is wonderful as Larson's girlfriend, who often plays second fiddle to Larson's musical obsessions and who's desired career as a dancer may see her leaving New York City. Judith Light is an absolute gem as Larson's frequently absent agent, a woman who appreciates his talent but often won't return his calls. Robin de Jesus is a scene-stealer as former roommate Michael, whose creative spark gave way to the desire for financial stability and a luxe advertising gig.
I loved every moment of tick, tick...Boom! Despite my own pressures of awards season screening, I loved the film so much that I immediately watched it again.
I will do so again.
First-time director Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted an absolute winner here.Having seen Rent for the first time himself at the age of 17, Miranda even played the role of Jon in tick, tick ... Boom! in a 2014 production and it's clear in every frame of this film that he gets it on a cellular level.
Easily one of the best films of 2021, tick, tick...Boom! is a holiday season gift for lovers of musical theaters, Jonathan Larson, and living life as a creative spirit.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic