tick, tick…Boom!, 2021.
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, MJ Rodriguez, Richard Kind, Judith Light, Black Thought, Joanna Adler, Joel Grey, Noah Robbins, Kenita R. Miller, Ken Holmes, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Ben Ross, Laura Benanti, Danielle Ferland, Micaela Diamond, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Gizel Jimenez, Kate Rockwell, Joel Perez, Judy Kuhn, Danny Burstein, Ryan Vasquez, and Jelani Alladin.
On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship, and the pressures of life as an artist in New York City.
At first glance, tick, tick…Boom! might appear to be strictly for Broadway enthusiasts. While it’s definitely leaning into that fan base with cameos, references to other famous stage plays, and functioning as a musical itself (the movie is based on Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical rock monologue concert), there is a universal connection to be made regarding time, life dreams, and the juxtaposing the pursuit of happiness with soul-crushing mundane jobs that prioritize responsibility.
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and written by Steven Levenson (with the former seemingly drawn to making this his debut feature due to its dealing with community, social politics, and dreamer protagonist), tick, tick…Boom! begins with Andrew Garfield’s interpretation of Rent creator Jonathan Larson in 1990, stressing out over his looming 30th birthday, which will be arriving while he is poor and hasn’t made a cent from musical theatre (apparently, he has been rejected by nearly everyone in the industry, although the great Stephen Sondheim, played here by Bradley Whitford, has offered words of encouragement for the aspiring artist), and hasn’t written a single lyric for a crucial second act song he needs to crank out before putting on a public presentation of his 5 or 8 years in the making heady sci-fi musical Superbia to be attended by important industry types.
Naturally, anyone roughly in the same age group (for perspective, I’m 32 myself and found Jonathan’s dilemma of feeling that achieving his dreams has an expiration date to be instantly relatable) should be able to connect to the character immediately. It especially helps that the first song and dance number is a lively, existential but lighthearted musing on the terrors of aging without having much to show for the things one has sunk their life into. As Jonathan tries to balance his relationship with Susan (Alexandra Shipp, supportive but not afraid to give him a reality check), a former dancer contemplating accepting a new job that will move her from the West End of Soho New York to Berkshire, and cope with tragic illnesses and deaths of friends related to the AIDS crisis, the strain of finishing his play and making it to the big time is audibly realized with a ticking clock that becomes more pronounced as the story intensifies.
tick, tick…Boom! also features several sequences of Jonathan Larson performing the titular rock monologue (complete with a band and collaborative singer in Vanessa Hudgens’ Karessa) that doubles as a hefty amount of exposition, simultaneously peeling back Jonathan’s state of mind throughout various personal matters that occur before presenting Superbia. There are times when this approach roadblocks the narrative thrust and subdues the race against time, but Andrew Garfield throws himself into these scenes (and every scene really, but his performance is showstopping when Jonathan is the singular focus) that it provides some balance.
At one point, Jonathan’s self-imposed burden of achieving greatness has him acknowledging that he wants to visit his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) but that he can’t because there is no time. Jonathan and Michael are childhood friends who grew up performing together; However, Michael has recently decided to accept a high-paying gig in marketing that pays well enough to move out of the untidy and cramped apartment they share into one far more luxurious. Jonathan also starts to entertain the idea that if he wants to keep his girlfriend and fund his projects (he wants to hire additional band members for the presentation), he might have to swallow his pride and assert his creativity elsewhere.
It’s also easy to label Jonathan self-centered (at least from reading reviews without referring to the film for greater context), but that’s actually not the case. Whereas Jonathan frequently shelves-life-changing conversations with Susan or is so involved with his art that he childishly needs reminders to pay his bills (ones he is having trouble affording), tick, tick… Boom! works because he is also constantly learning how to communicate better, how to support his friends, and who is really running out of time. Such realizations also play into the storytelling structure, taking Jonathan wherever the character needs to go. In other words, the story can occasionally feel disjointed, but not without a third-act purpose that beautifully comes together.
It should also be no surprise that the songs (all written by Jonathan Larson) are elaborately staged by Lin-Manuel Miranda either with imagination (musical notes materializing along with the floor stripes of a swimming pool) or dynamic lighting that seems related to Jonathan’s mood. Light fills the frame when he is singing, workshopping, or presenting. Nearly everywhere else, the color palette is cold and bleak, as if Jonathan is not where he belongs.
Still, it’s also difficult to single out one song and dance number as genuinely remarkable. Some of them pass on without making much of an impression, although there is something to admire in Jonathan challenging himself to write songs about literally anything. There is a segment where another character criticizes Jonathan Larson’s Superbia for not having figured out all of its character details, what it wants to be, and how to strike a chord emotionally. The same faults could be applied to tick, tick… Boom! (the script is undoubtedly the weak link). Fortunately, Andrew Garfield overcomes those shortcomings delivering a neurotic and chaotic powerhouse performance that taps into the essence of time and what it really means to be running out of it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com