In the most charming moment of Tick, Tick… Boom!, a group of New York City artist types lounge around a cramped apartment in the waning hours of a party. Suddenly, host and aspiring musical theater composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) launches into an a cappella tribute to the bohemians who sacrifice creature comforts and steady paychecks in the hope of following an artistic dream. It’s less a fully realized musical number than a semi-realistic rendering of the sort of navel-gazing that theater kids are inclined to indulge in, harmonized vocals and all. Meanwhile, a finance bro watches in awe at the spontaneous group creation happening around him—gawking at a world so different than his own that it might as well be another planet.
In his debut feature as a director, Lin-Manuel Miranda can see both points of view here. His adaptation of this deep-cut stage show is an unabashed ode to theater kids, one filled with so many Broadway Easter eggs and cameos it’ll have fans pausing their Netflix screens every few minutes to catch them all. But Miranda’s bigger goal is to make the insular, self-involved world of musical theater accessible to those who are more inclined to gape at a spontaneous performance than join in. Like Miranda’s other big 2021 project, In The Heights, Tick, Tick… Boom! is refreshingly unembarrassed by the fact that it’s a musical. But it’s also a musical that tries to deconstruct why musicals matter.
Garfield plays Larson, the real-life composer who changed Broadway forever with Rent, his generation-defining rock musical. Tick, Tick… Boom! is an earlier, semi-autobiographical work written by Larson, which started life as a one-man “rock monologue” performed by the composer himself. After his untimely death, the musical was revamped as a three-person show about a composer named Jon and the personal and professional anxiety he feels on the verge of his 30th birthday, which just happens to fall right around the same time as a high-profile workshop presentation of his avant-garde new musical. For their big screen adaptation, Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson rework the material into something even more explicitly biographical, pulling in context from Larson’s life and his place in musical theater history. “This is Jonathan Larson’s story,” the opening voiceover explains, before adding a cheeky caveat: “Everything you’re about to see is true. Except for the parts Jonathan made up.”
It helps that Miranda has found a pitch-perfect match of character and star. The real-life footage of Larson that plays over the end credits confirms that Garfield’s turn is an impressive act of mimicry. But, more importantly, it’s also a full-bodied, fully realized performance in its own right. Garfield’s solid singing voice is surpassed by his wildly impressive physicality. He embodies this role from the tips of his toes to the top of his curly mop of hair. And his lanky, jittery energy is as compelling in quiet moments of realism as in the big production numbers where he quite literally throws himself into the choreography. In Garfield’s hands, Jonathan becomes a charismatic, mercurial, anxiety-ridden, soulful, funny force.
He’s also the sort of myopic artist who can be frustratingly self-absorbed. (“I’m the future of musical theater,” he says by way of explaining his job.) Yet he has an earnest puppy dog quality that makes it impossible to stay mad at him. It’s a push-pull that characterizes Jonathan’s relationship with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), a dancer who wants to inject some pragmatism into her life. That’s also true for Jonathan’s lifelong best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), a former actor who switched to a more lucrative job in advertising. Both are annoyed by Jonathan’s tendency to bury himself in his work at the cost of everything else in his life. But there’s something that keeps drawing them back to him, too.
It’s not a million miles away from the themes of Miranda’s Hamilton, which is also about a sometimes difficult man who spends his life writing like he’s running out of time. But Tick, Tick… Boom! brings Miranda much closer to his own experience as an aspiring composer looking to shake up Broadway’s sound. In many ways, this is just as much Miranda’s story as it is Larson’s (Miranda has even performed the role of Jon on stage), and it’s that lovingly personal touch that elevates Tick, Tick… Boom! Though the movie deploys a framing device that lets Jonathan serve as the narrator of his own story, Miranda doesn’t get too bogged down in trying to come up with rigid rules for how the musical numbers work. There’s a wonderful fluidity to the way a grounded dialogue scene suddenly becomes a dance number that weaves among the shelves of a bookstore, or how a trip to the local pool becomes a fantastical representation of creative inspiration.
But there are missteps here, too. The attempt to root the story in the AIDS crisis of the early ’90s is well-meaning but clumsy, and save for a few standout numbers, the songs here are more uneven than the ones in Rent. And some shoddily composited green screen backgrounds may reflect the difficulties of shooting during a pandemic—the production had to shut down after only a week of filming in March of 2020.
Regardless, Tick, Tick… Boom! is buoyed by Garfield’s towering performance and its game supporting cast, particularly Vanessa Hudgens as a vivacious musical theater performer and Bradley Whitford as legendary composer Stephen Sondheim himself. In joyfully embracing just about every tool in the movie-musical toolbox, Miranda crafts a fitting tribute to the act of artistic creation. And he might just make some musical converts in the process.