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Review: tick, tick…BOOM!

November 12, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The stress of turning thirty, and measuring yourself against other artists who found success at a young age, is one of the prevailing themes in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very good directorial debut tick, tick…BOOM!, a musical film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical stage show of the same name.

This idea of leaving your twenties behind with little to show for it, encapsulated in the stunning opening song “30/90,” underscores the entire movie, which captures a sense of life passing by and feeling like you don’t have enough time to write everything that needs to be written and say everything that needs to be said.

Miranda embraces this idea of turning thirty as a sort of self-imposed artistic deadline, using it to add a ticking time bomb feel to his film. But this sense of impending doom around turning the big 3-0 that he so effectively captures gets at something darker as well. Larson, of course, is best known for writing the Tony-winning Rent, a musical about the AIDS epidemic exploring the passage of time, and he tragically died of a heart attack the night before it premiered in 1996 at the age of 35.

It’s a well-known detail that is revealed through voiceover in Miranda’s film, which also incorporates the sound of a ticking clock into its soundtrack at key moments to remind us of time passing by. In this way, tick, tick…BOOM! is very much a movie about deadlines and time running out. But, amidst the anxiety of getting older that permeates it, Miranda is able to capture the vitality of life as well. Because Larson, as portrayed onscreen by Andrew Garfield in an absolutely electric performance, is portrayed as a live-wire of creativity and energy. For two hours, Miranda and Garfield make him come alive.

Larson’s titular stage show was essentially somewhat of a one-man show telling his life story through a mix of monologues and songs, so Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson make the very effective choice of using it as a framing device. The film seamlessly cuts back and forth between Garfield’s Larson performing onstage and dramatic scenes to flesh out the story. The story itself is set in New York City in the first few weeks of 1990, as Larson approaches his 30th birthday and questions if he should just leave his artistic ambitions behind and join the corporate world.

He is struggling to finally finish his futuristic rock musical Superbia, after spending eight years of his life working on it, while breaking his back working in a diner to make ends meet and trying to balance a relationship with a girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) who wants to move forward. This is juxtaposed by his friend and former roommate Michael (Robin de Jesús, also a standout in last year’s Boys in the Band remake), who left his acting dreams behind to get a job in advertising, with the tradeoff being a steady income, health insurance, and a nice apartment. Michael, as portrayed by de Jesús in a gut-wrenching performance, is in many ways the heart of the film.

Because of his own Broadway background, Miranda obviously understands the material, and he crafts a solid directorial debut. He is able to incorporate the dramatic scenes and musical numbers in a way that feels mostly organic, with the framing device giving them an almost meta feel. This includes a ’90s rap music video and a somewhat surreal musical number set in the diner where Larson works. Editors Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum keep the film moving at a gripping pace, and do an impressive job of cutting between the different elements of the film.

The film very much feels like a tribute to the world of musical theatre with several little cameos from other songwriters and performers, including the spot-on appearance of Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim, who serves as sort of a mentor figure to Larson. If there’s one minor quibble that I have with the film, it’s that a few of the background players do feel underwritten, and I wish that Vanessa Hudgens had been given a bit more to do as Karessa, one of Larson’s cast members. Though Hudgens does get a few nice chances to sing (including a fun duet with Garfield), she also feels a bit underused.

It’s Garfield who makes tick, tick…BOOM! so compelling to watch with his magnetic portrayal of Larson, delivering a towering performance with echoes of Roy Scheider in All That Jazz. While some actors need prosthetics or makeup to transform into a role, he simply lets his hair stand up on end. Garfield plays him like a firecracker with a lit fuse waiting to explode, but there is a reason for his manic, wide-eyed energy; he is playing a man terrified of running out of time.

And watching him with knowledge of Larson’s story makes his portrayal not only gripping but also heartbreaking. In a year of movie musicals, this is maybe the best, offering an enthralling and moving look at the creative process through the eyes of a bright young star who burned out too quickly.

tick, tick…BOOM! is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to stream on Netflix as of November 19th.

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