REVIEW: tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)

Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in Netflix’s tick, tick… BOOM! — Photo: Macall Polay / Netflix.

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda — Screenplay by Steven Levenson.

Hamilton-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick… BOOM! is based on the Jonathan Larson musical of the same name and it tells the story of Jonathan Larson’s time as an aspiring composer and playwright in New York City in the early 1990s. Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) is about to turn thirty years old, and he is worried that he is about to miss his moment. While he is juggling paying his bills, working on his relationship with his girlfriend, Susan (played by Alexandra Shipp), and working as a waiter in a SoHo diner, he is also trying to complete his musical Superbia, which he has been working on for eight years, before it is to be presented a couple of days prior to his birthday. But Larson finds it difficult to find time for everyone in his life as he can constantly sense that time is ticking away inside his head.

While I wouldn’t categorize myself as a ‘musical theater kid,’ I think I would’ve liked to have run in those circles when I was younger because I have grown to really love the musical as an art form. But that means that I also have to say that I didn’t know a lot about Jonathan Larson before I watched this film. This film did really interest me, though, since I thought Garfield was such an inspired choice to lead a musical (and since I really enjoyed Miranda’s Hamilton). And while I did have some minor problems with tick, tick… BOOM!, I have to say that I still fell for this story and this film.

“Everything that you are about to see is true. Except for the parts Jonathan made up.”

I was quite fascinated by the structure of tick, tick… BOOM!, which is bookended by archival footage of Larson, as well as a voice-over narrator telling us who Jonathan was and what happened to him after the events of the film. What is so interesting about the structure of the film, though, is that the film, from start to finish, intercuts between, first, Garfield’s Jonathan telling his story (and singing) in an on-stage performance of the musical of the same name and, secondly, the real-life drama that happens to Jonathan, which, importantly, features some magical realism as musical performances are delivered in the ‘real world.’

This two-pronged narrative — i.e. the on-stage framing device and the real-life inner story — is fascinating, but, even though I think it mostly works very well, I also constantly thought about whether the film would’ve been more interesting if the frame story had been dropped entirely. One of the reasons why is that I thought the frantic intercutting between the framing and inner stories undercut Jonathan Larson’s relationship with his girlfriend and the very real argument that they eventually get into.

I am a sucker for the more fantastical, magical realism musical performances in movie musicals, so whenever the film went in that direction I was excited (though I wanted more of it). “Sunday,” for example, is a fun performance. That said, I also thought many of the performances of songs on-stage were quite engaging. In general, I was really impressed with the fact that Andrew Garfield sang his character’s songs, and it made me want to see him do many more movie musicals. Garfield really throws himself into the role and he looks like a seasoned movie musical veteran, as he delivers one of the best performances of his acting career. Garfield is exceptional. I will also say that I was impressed by the characterization of the main character, who has his flaws and who feels fully realized.

Outside of Andrew Garfield, the supporting performance that has stayed with me the most since I first saw this film was the one delivered by Robin de Jesús, who plays Larson’s former roommate and childhood best friend, Michael. Michael’s character has way more to do in this story than I initially expected, and his importance in the third act took me by surprise. This brings me to the fact that tick, tick… BOOM! also gets quite dark and sad eventually. There are moments in the film that can really break your heart, and there was a scene that made my bottom lip quiver out of sheer sadness.

It has been really fascinating to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda transition from the stage to the screen. Though he was made famous by his incredible musical Hamilton, the transition to popular song compositions and screen acting has been rather smooth. With tick, tick… BOOM! he proves that he can also be a more-than-competent film director. A love letter to the creative process and to Jonathan Larson, Miranda’s first film as a director is relatable, energetic, heartbreaking, and involving. Robin de Jesús and Andrew Garfield’s spirited performances helped to bring this story to life in a way that really connected with me, and I’m sure audiences around the world will feel similarly.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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