WARNING: This review contains *spoilers*
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius is on display once more in his big-screen directorial debut, tick, tick… BOOM.
The film is an artistic biography following the late musical playwright Jonathon Larson (Andrew Garfield) as he struggles to make it in New York before finally succeeding with the hit Rent.
The creator of Hamilton has managed to avoid making yet another rags to riches biopic, instead focusing on the stark reality of failure and sacrifice without the cliché happy ending.
This is helped by the narrative structure, based around an autobiographical musical written by Larson himself about the experience of creating his beloved Superbia (no, you haven’t heard of it – the musical was never commissioned despite his years of work). All of the songs in the film were penned by Larson before his untimely death. This gives Miranda a unique opportunity to dramatise a truly accurate representation of the composer’s troubled psyche, and he does not disappoint.
The musical genre is often associated with overacting and melodramatic overtones, but tick, tick… BOOM delivers quite the opposite. Instead of ruining the plot with random outbursts into song, the music punctuates often the darkest moments of the film, accentuating the protagonist’s struggles.
The plot follows Larson in the run up to his thirtieth birthday, which is sparking somewhat of an existential crisis because his debut musical is still unfinished. He continually refers to a ticking time bomb he hears in his head, which is audible to the audience at points during the film, creating an unnerving sense of both urgency and uncertainty.
Alongside this personal crisis, Jon attempts to juggle his writing, his job at a diner, his friendship with best friend Michael (Robin de Jesùs) and his relationship with girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp). Garfield’s often frenetic portrayal of the playwright convincingly depicts the inward frustrations of a creative who is dedicated to his craft, yet feels time is running out to both live life and fulfil his dream of writing America’s next great musical.
Garfield is the shining light of the film. At times the set and characters around him seem to pale in comparison, but perhaps that was a stylistic choice. The scale of Larson’s genius is effectively emphasised by the distinct normality of his surroundings, which don’t seem to do him justice.
Having said this, De Jesùs portrays the despair of being diagnosed with HIV at the height of the AIDS epidemic with great honesty. The film’s handling of the epidemic, despite feeling like a bit of a sidenote, does a good job of depicting just how bleak it was. Garfield, of course, plays a big part in this – ‘Why’, performed by the protagonist at a grand piano in an empty Central Park amphitheatre at night, is heart-breaking.
It’s not all doom and gloom, and the more humorous elements of the film are performed with great verve. Vanessa Hudgens makes a glittering appearance as singer Karessa, and accompanies Garfield in a frantic performance of the viral number ‘Therapy’, in which, wide-eyed, they continually sing over each other in what Garfield’s character calls “scenes from a modern romance”. The number is light-hearted and funny despite echoing Larson’s failure to protect his love story with Susan from the turmoil of his creative life.
The monotony of Larson’s job waiting at a diner is also preserved from becoming depressing with the star-studded daydream number ‘Sunday’. Some of the biggest names in Broadway history, including Howard McGillin who starred in The Phantom of the Opera for a decade and the original Anita from West Side Story Chita Rivera, make cameos in the flashiest sequence of the film, with the lyrics ironically focusing on the banality of Sunday brunch.
The film closes with the devastatingly bittersweet revelation that just a day before Larson’s Rent was first performed on Broadway in 1996, he tragically died at just 35 of a sudden aortic aneurism. He finally achieved his dream, revolutionising musical theatre in the process, but never got to see it played out. The ticking time bomb went off just too early.
Tick, tick… BOOM will linger in the mind for a good while, primarily due to Garfield’s brilliantly raw performance. Musical theatre fans are in for a treat with great tunes and plenty of Easter eggs, while the completely new and refreshing lens which will satisfy those who go into the movie with a lack of knowledge about Larson’s life.
Tick, tick… BOOM is available to watch now on Netflix.