In tick, tick…BOOM!, Jonathan says, “There’s not enough time.” The fear of not having enough time to accomplish everything within a person’s potential is a theme that runs through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work which makes his direction of this musical very apt. tick, tick…BOOM! is a semi-autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson about his creative pursuits as a writer in New York City. Just as Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton “write[s] like [he’s] running out of time,” Jonathan works furiously on his musical, while his impending death that we know is coming lingers in the air.
tick, tick…BOOM! started out as a one-man show performed by Larson himself in 1990. In 1996, after Larson’s death, it was transformed into a three-person show by playwright David Auburn and has been performed throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. Now screenwriter Steven Levenson, who also wrote Dear Evan Hanson, has updated it once more for the screen, expanding the cast and fleshing out the parts of Jonathan’s life that we get to see.
Tick, Tick…boom! Is a Beautiful Tribute to Theatre and Jonathan Larson Himself
The film begins with camcorder-like footage of Jonathan (Andrew Garfield), very similar to actual footage of Larson, and a voiceover tells us, “Everything you’re about to see is true, except for the parts Jonathan made up.” Jonathan is going through a quarter-life crisis about his lack of theatre achievements before his 30th birthday. The rest of the show is intercut between Jonathan performing tick, tick…BOOM! with Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) and Roger (Joshua Henry) and the events that he is singing about.
Jonathan is preparing for his workshop of the musical he’s spent his life working on, Superbia. Inspired and encouraged by Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), he hopes to make his mark on the New York theatre world. But sometimes his relationships with his modern dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and gay best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) suffer from his dedication to his art. Meanwhile, his friend Freddy (Ben Levi Ross) has been diagnosed with AIDS, which Rent fans will connect to Larson’s later work about a New York in which the fear of the disease permeates every corner of bohemian life.
The story of a broke artist trying to make it and not sell out to the corporate world isn’t exactly new, but it’s still engaging and as relevant in 2021 as it ever has been. Jonathan’s story is more powerful for his self-awareness about the suffering that is happening around him and his questioning whether his art truly matters. His life as an artist is contrasted with his best friend Michael, a former aspiring actor who now works in advertising and can afford a nice apartment.
It’s no surprise that de Jesús was cast in this role, considering that he originated the role of Sonny in Miranda’s In the Heights and Miranda has a pattern of continuing to work with the same actors and bringing stage actors into his films. But de Jesús absolutely nails the role of Michael and is the perfect grounded counterpoint to Garfield’s Jonathan.
It’s Garfield though who is the beating heart of this film, bringing Larson to life flawlessly from his high energy to his fluffy hair. The way that he throws himself into the physicality of the role and Ryan Heffington’s choreography is incredible to witness. The scenes of him performing the show, which could have been a slog and distraction from the action with another actor, are so engaging and delightful to watch.
Garfield is an actor who has proved his talent in the past so his emotive, almost manic performance is not that shocking. His gorgeous singing is a pleasant surprise though, as he absolutely matches the talent of the other actors in the cast who have Broadway experience.
Larson’s songs shine in the film and the sound mixing by Greg Wells doesn’t sport that autotuned sound that too many movie musicals have lately. Instead, the vocals and instrumentals do the score complete justice and are absolutely at the same level as a Broadway recording. Garfield’s singing is a revelation and Hudgens and Henry are as amazing as you would expect from performers with backgrounds like theirs.
While the opening “30/90” is the clear standout of the show, there are multiple fantastic songs. “No More” is a fun and bouncy number, while “Johnny Can’t Decide” is a top-tier ballad. “Therapy,” which cuts between an emotional scene between Jonathan and Susan and Jonathan and Karessa performing with an almost manic energy, is a clear demonstration of this film’s strength.
Above everything else, tick, tick…BOOM! is a beautiful tribute to theatre. It’s very theatrical, while still taking advantage of the medium of film to do things that couldn’t be accomplished on stage. While people without much knowledge of theatre can absolutely still appreciate the film, theatre nerds will be screaming over all of the cameos of theatre performers, both older legends and current Broadway stars.
Theatre actors being cast in these cameos and small roles also demonstrates one of the best things about Miranda: that he is absolutely still a man of the theatre community and is ensuring that his success translates into opportunities for theatre actors. Anyone keeping track will note that the one actor (and friend) who has appeared in almost all of Miranda’s work also makes a cameo in this.
It’s an impressive directorial debut for Miranda, who uses his theatre background to make one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations of all time, in my opinion. Not only does he direct excellent performances from the whole cast, but there are some creative choices made like writing appearing on the screen as Jonathan does it and asides to the camera. It’s great to see a director taking chances, rather than phoning in a workmanlike job. One shot, during the number “Swimming,” that shows music notes on the pool floor from overhead as Jonathan swims across is particularly gorgeous.
This film is a much more fitting tribute to Larson and his work than the Rent film, which many feel didn’t capture the essence of the show. It’s an impressive directorial debut from Miranda, a lesson in how to adapt a musical for the screen, and a showcase for Garfield’s excellent acting and singing skills. But more than anything, tick, tick…BOOM! is a love letter to Jonathan Larson, a man the theatre community lost far too soon, and to theatre itself.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.