tick, tick…BOOM! (Review)

In the last ten years especially, there has been an influx of stage musicals making it to the big screen, both in remade adaptations and first-time films. It’s a tricky genre to pull off on the big screen due to the highly theatrical nature of a lot of musicals; the energy, dynamics, and aesthetics are uniquely suited to a live theatre experience. Some have foregone film adaptations altogether and released recordings of their stage shows which I think is a really good idea. Musical theatre is not a niche genre by any means, but it is quite inaccessible due to the scarcity of performances and the high admission prices in a lot of popular venues. For many, film adaptations are their only exposure to certain shows.

tick, tick…BOOM! is the latest movie-musical to be released this year, taking the baton from last month’s Dear Evan Hansen. It marks the directorial debut effort from Broadway virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for creating the musicals Hamilton and In the Heights, the latter actually getting a movie adaptation released earlier this year. tick, tick, BOOM! follows the late, great Broadway writer/composer Jonathan Larson, who is probably best known for creating the hit rock-musical Rent which opened new doors for musical theatre. The film stars Andrew Garfield as Larson, with supporting performances from Robin de Jesús, Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens, Mj Rodriguez, Judith Light, and Bradley Whitford amongst many others, including a multitude of cameos from celebrated Broadway stars.

It’s easy to see why Miranda wanted to make this film; there are lots and lots of stories about actors and singers wanting to make it, but you’d be hard-pressed to find as many stories about theatre composers and lyricists, something that Miranda has garnered acclaim for. I’m quite a big fan of his work on Hamilton, and In the Heights is fairly good, so I know how much talent the man possesses in his songwriting and compositions. His directorial ability, however, doesn’t reach that standard. It’s to be expected with a debut film, but tick, tick…BOOM! can be very messy in places. The editing is choppy, the shots feel uninspired at times, and it’s disappointing because Larson is full of life and fire and I wish the story had an accompanying directorial hand that allowed it to run as wild as the mind of its subject. Miranda definitely had a bold, creative vision for the film that perhaps didn’t quite work out as successfully as his staged endeavours have done. Miranda actually played Jon Larson in a three-day revival event, so it’s beyond clear that he understands the material, I think the issue is the lack of confidence and experience behind the camera. The film suffers for it, but not as much as most films do in terms of a lacking directorial effort.

The source material is derived from Larson’s original intention to perform it as a solo piece, a semi-autobiographical exploration of a composer’s efforts to make it in the theatre world as his 30th birthday approaches. After Larson’s death, the work was tweaked into a three-character production Off-Broadway which spawned many successful revivals and reworkings and, now, a film adaptation. The songs, in true Larson fashion, are exceptional. With an assortment of bouncy, lilting numbers that speak of inspiration and the joys of creating art and some slower, more emotionally grounded ballads, tick, tick…BOOM! surely has at least something for everyone. That being said, it is quite heavily tailored to a fan of the theatre, with the numerous ‘if you know, you know’ cameos and references that can be quite tedious at times. The soundtrack, though, stands strong as a collection of Larson’s genius, aptly performed and acted by the cast assembled here.

I’m not going to beat around the bush. This is the Andrew Garfield show. Yeah, the supporting cast is good and I’ll highlight a few of them in a second, but Garfield delivers a career-best performance here and pours his heart, soul, sweat, and tears into a ravishing performance, perhaps the best I’ve seen in a movie-musical since Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2002’s Chicago, which notably nabbed her an Academy Award. Garfield is deserving of the same honour for his portrayal of Jonathan Larson. This is the kind of performance awards are invented for. His range is phenomenal, so intricately portraying the struggles of creating art with no financial recompense while also nailing the musical numbers which require a lot of charisma and gravitas not to mention musical talent. Garfield’s singing voice is sublime and he knocks every performance out of the park. I’ll be thinking about the “Why” scene for a long time to come. I expect to see his name listed among the Best Actor nominees in a few months’ time and I’ll be happily championing a victory for him in March.

Andrew Garfield might be the star of the show and the best thing about the film, but that’s not to say that nobody else stands out. Robin de Jesús turns in a heartfelt, compassionate performance that deeply resonates with not only Larson himself but the audience too. Alexandra Shipp is probably the best I’ve seen her be; her segments of “Come to Your Senses” are marvellous. She brings pathos to a role that is quite thankless from Larson’s perspective. She’s the love that becomes just another obstacle in his path to achieving his due success.

One of the problems with the tortured genius artist narratives is that the protagonist can often be seen as unlikeable and ruthless, casting aside their loved ones in pursuit of their creative dreams. Larson isn’t an exception to the rule, but Garfield manages to provide just enough depth to the depiction that his eventual moments of remorse and realisation about the value of his loved ones ring across as true and truly felt.

It may not be as polished and straightforward as a lot of movie-musical adaptations and the messiness is definitely noticed in the moments where nobody is singing, but I had a great time with tick, tick…BOOM! as an overall product. Not a perfect film by means, but one that I deeply enjoyed, especially as an admirer of both musical theatre and Andrew Garfield. It’s unlikely to touch those who aren’t interested in musical theatre in the same way, but there’s a lot of value there. It doesn’t quite the marks it thinks it does, but it’s more than worth a watch.

tick, tick…BOOM! is available on Netflix now!

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