tick, tick…BOOM! (Movie Review)

STAR-RATING: 4 out of 4 stars. Andrew Garfield wows in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of the bio-musical about RENT creator Jonathan Larson.

**** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some strong language, some suggestive material and drug references)
Released: November 12, 2021 limited in theaters; November 19 on Netflix
Runtime: 115 minutes
Directed by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Robin de Jesus, Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Ben Ross, MJ Rodriguez, Gizel Jimenez, Bradley Whitford, Judith Light

Streaming on Netflix beginning November 19

tick, tick…BOOM! is the closest a movie has ever come to replicating what it feels like to experience a show live on Broadway.

Who could pull off such a feat? Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star and writer of such smash hit Best Musical winners as Hamilton and In The Heights. Here, he makes his feature film directorial debut.

Not since Bob Fosse and Cabaret fifty years ago has a theatrical impresario so confidently made the transition from stage to screen, melding the two mediums with such inspired, exhilarating elan.

In 2021, tick, tick…BOOM! may be the best new musical playing anywhere – on Broadway, the West End, or otherwise – and it just so happens to be streaming on Netflix. Yet even with that easy accessibility, if you have the opportunity to catch this on the big screen during its limited theatrical run, it’s an absolute must to do so, especially for musical theatre diehards.

It’s the story of Jonathan Larson, the creator Rent, the 1996 game-changing (and Pulitzer Prize winning) musical. This, however, isn’t the “Making of Rent.” Rather, tick, tick…BOOM! ­– a show that Larson wrote and produced before Rent – is about being a struggling artist in New York City during the 1980s.

It tracks Larson’s grueling push to produce SUPERBIA, his first musical, and how that journey led to making this musical, his second. tick, tick…BOOM! follows Larson’s humble beginnings as a waiter-with-a-dream as he seeks to land a public workshop performance of SUPERBIA, with the hope that it will attract professional producers and backers.

Yes, the expected beats are all there (working in a diner, barely paying bills, etc.), all portrayed with the expected mix of bohemian youthful freedom and the angst of hard work being met with rejection – but it never feels conventional or clichéd. On the contrary, it’s such a deeply personal memoir told with such a singular voice that, like Rent after it, tick, tick…BOOM! elevates and redefines the form itself.

And who better than Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate it for the screen? Miranda is Larson’s beneficiary, walking through the revolutionary door that Larson opened with his own hip-hop twist on the genre. Lin-Manuel also likely sees very much of his own story and struggle in Larson’s.

As such, this is Miranda’s ardent, grateful ode to his hero — but it’s also an opportunity for Miranda to showcase his talents in a whole new medium. He rises to that moment and doesn’t throw away his shot.

As in theatre, Miranda brings absolutely everything he has to a show, a script, a song, a role. One thing a Miranda production will never be is one-note. As a result, a show’s inherent formula becomes organic and alive. Beats that are familiar in hindsight are spontaneous in the moment, real and surprising. Miranda’s unapologetically unbridled dramaturgy takes us through the entire gamut of human emotions, not as crass plays for all the feels but emotions at their most resonant, life-changing depths.

Miranda also displays inspired directorial invention, from juxtaposing a goofy country-fied hoedown (“Therapy”) against one of Larson’s most heartbreaking crossroads, to a gasp-inducing staging of “Sunday” (Larson’s personalized paraphrase of an iconic Sondheim classic) that’s filled with such clever Broadway Easter Eggs that it will give Theatre Nerds absolute chills (and may overwhelm some to happy tears). It’s the kind of thing that only Miranda could conceive, let alone dare pull off.

Miranda’s spirit and Larson’s show are kindred in a story about how musicals are developed, perfected, and made. How it’s conceived, birthed, and takes form from real-life experience. It’s a celebratory yet honest, unflinching look at the artist, their process, the sacrifices made, the temptations to compromise and, as equally important, the hurts caused and bridges burned.

Miranda and Larson’s soulful artistry pulsates with joy and passion and anguish, and Andrew Garfield (as Larson) captures and exudes that energy through every possible pore.

Indeed, Garfield so entirely becomes Larson (which includes unleashing a heretofore hidden vocal instrument that soars through the melodies and harmonies of Larson’s demanding pop showtunes) that it’s nothing short of a revelation, even for such a seasoned, award-winning talent as Garfield.

Garfield’s transformation is imminently compelling and credible even as it avoids any make-up prosthetics or vocal and physical impersonations. Other than styling his hair the same, Garfield’s metamorphosis is all his own. He doesn’t imitate Larson; Garfield channels him. A powerhouse of charisma and flawed yet earnest humanity, you won’t see a better performance on screen all year.

The supporting ensemble electrifies, too, most notably Robin de Jesus as Michael, Jon’s lifelong friend. As an actor who “sold out” for a lucrative career in marketing, de Jesus’s Michael is a sympathetic portrayal, one that respects a struggling artist’s personal limits rather than judging them – especially for Michael, a gay man navigating the scary early days of the AIDS epidemic.

Alexandra Shipp also shines as Susan, Jonathan’s girlfriend, a woman who genuinely loves and supports Jonathan’s dreams even as they are the very mistress in their relationship. And in brilliantly utilized extended-cameos, Vanessa Hudgens, Judith Light, and Bradley Whitford round out a Broadway-worthy ensemble.

Despite its streaming home on Netflix, tick, tick…BOOM! is not a movie to be watched casually. Treat it like the event that it is, even at home. Commit to it like you would a night out at the theatre. Sit down with the anticipation of a show you’re giddy for and give it your full attention. Not only has Miranda and his team earned it, but you will be so richly rewarded for it.

Rent may be the musical that Larson was born to make, but tick, tick…BOOM! is his truth — and it’s even more stirring than his fiction. It’s one of the best films of the year, and a genuine gift.

Leave a Reply