Lin Manuel Miranda’s debut is a risky but very effective adaptation
It’s hard to imagine a more poetic and tragic story than that of Jonathan Larson. The musical playwright had been struggling to produce his ambitious oeuvres for years and died the day before the opening night of “Rent” which would become a blockbuster show, win multiple Tonys, and even spark movie adaptations. Before “Rent,” Larson wrote and produced a biographical musical about his own struggles to make it on Broadway called “Tick, Tick…Boom” which has been adapted as a biographical film of Larson by Lin Manuel Miranda.
Tick, Tick… Boom (2021) is the story of Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) a man nearing his 30th birthday and fighting anxiety over his lack of artistic success. Jonathan works at a diner, but is promised a workshop for his ambitious futuristic musical “Superbia.” His entire life from his relationships with his wealthy best friend (Robin de Jesus) and girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) to his financial well-being seems to hang in the balance.
While there have been many films depicting the struggle of making it in Hollywood, not many have truly dived into the ruthless world of Broadway. Sure, The Producers (1967) was able to lend a cynical view at the corporatism abound and Birdman (2014) looked at the grueling process of it all. Tick, Tick… Boom, however, is much more fascinated with the journey to Broadway rather than the tensions already occurring in it. Thus, it is a much more accessible ode to struggling artists instead. Native New Yorker Miranda is able to lend an authenticity to the New Yorker artist’s life in a way that few directors could have done; mixed with the golden details that Larson littered in his songs this adds to delicious homage.
This is Miranda’s first film as a director, and he takes on quite a difficult material to adapt. Tick, Tick…Boom was originally conceived as a one man show, and it was only after Larson’s death that future adaptations expanded the narrative and cast. Miranda does a curious amalgamation of both. We have a more traditional story of Larson’s character going to locations and interacting with characters in the “real world,” while we also cut away to a seeming staged performance whenever he has interior thoughts. This proved disconcerting at first, as Miranda struggles to make a distinction between these two sequences; at some points I thought the interior scenes were set in the future of the past and not occurring at the same time. However, as the film progresses you are able to catch on. By jumping around the abstract and real Miranda does add a fluidity on screen that many adapted musicals lack; as a result this makes each song and number even more entertaining and stand out from each other.
Tick, Tick… Boom hinges on the lead performance of the character of Larson. Andrew Garfield has been increasingly leaning towards art-house fare and pushing the limits of his acting. However, I have rarely seen him as uninhibited and completely engrossed in a role as with Larson. His singing is impressive for someone with no history in music, and his performance is all-encapsulating. Larson’s character fiddles with the possibility of becoming slightly obnoxious and arrogant, yet Garfield is able to thread his needle, so we understand the character’s mindset and end up finding him rather charming.
You can tell from every frame in Tick, Tick…Boom that there is a great deal of love and appreciation towards Broadway and musicals at large. Miranda has an impressive debut that takes risks in its adaptation and mostly hold up. The lead performance from Garfield is a career best and magnetic, and the emotional heft of the story behind the musical remains intact and incredibly affecting.