Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.
Tick, Tick … Boom!
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Written by Steven Levenson
Starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp and Robin de Jesus
Classification PG; 525,600 minutes … just kidding, it’s only 115 minutes
Now playing in select theatres, including TIFF Lightbox in Toronto; streaming on Netflix starting Nov. 19
A musical adaptation of a musical about another musical that is directed by the reigning king of musicals, Tick, Tick … Boom! is not going to play especially well for any moviegoer who eyes the exits any time someone breaks into song. But for everyone else – whether you absent-mindedly hum a show tune now and then or are willing to camp out on the cold, urine-soaked streets of Manhattan for a ticket to Sound-heim: Into the Woods and Words of Stephen! (not a thing … not yet, at least) – then Tick, Tick … Boom! is going to knock you flat on your Broadway-loving butt.
Based on the autobiographical early-nineties “rock monologue” of the same name, the film follows the aspiring New York theatre composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) as he tries to stage a workshop of his epic sci-fi satire Superbia. As Larson tries to complete what he thinks will be his masterpiece, he must balance myriad relationships and only-in-New York challenges. There’s his unhappy dancer girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp), his lonely best friend (Robin de Jesus), his powerful but inattentive agent (Judith Light), his day job serving in a local diner, his impressively awful apartment, and his inability to pay rent on said apartment.
That last point is important, as anyone who knows Larson’s backstory also knows that he found fame not for Superbia, but for a little sensation called Rent. Which would premiere off-Broadway in 1996, the same day that Larson died, at age 35, of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm.
Don’t worry, these aren’t spoilers: the film details Larson’s full arc right off the top. It’s a tactic that theoretically threatens to rob the movie of its central tension, but that never really happens. Thanks to a smart and sharp structure by screenwriter Steven Levenson – whose script follows Larson’s one-man show from beginning to end, frequently pausing to flesh out moments and colour in characters – and surprisingly tight direction from Lin-Manuel Miranda (a man not exactly known for restraint), Tick, Tick … Boom! hits nearly every beat it sets its sights on.
It is just that every single one of those notes belongs to the world of musical theatre super-geekdom. The litmus tests: Would you enjoy, or even be able to identify, a Godspell joke? How about an Old Deuteronomy gag? Would the sight of Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim provoke a gasp? If, say, Phillipa Soo popped up for a moment, would you lose your collective bearings? If the answer to any of the above is “yes,” then Tick, Tick … Boom! will give you a fatal heart attack, and you, my friend, will die dancing. But if you have no idea what I just wrote, then maybe consider this a pass.
Unless, well … unless you want to witness a truly phenomenal performance from Andrew Garfield. The actor completely disappears into the role of the high-energy, high-anxiety Larson. Even though we know the man’s fate, Garfield doesn’t present Jonathan as a walking obituary – he allows us to mourn the loss of a genius while also celebrating the fact that he existed, if only for a short while. It is such a remarkable, fully alive thing that Garfield pulls off here that it will compel you to re-evaluate absolutely every one of the actor’s other films. (I suggest starting with Channel 4′s Red Riding miniseries, produced just before Spider-Man corrupted North America’s concept of just who Andrew Garfield might be.)
Miranda’s film, his feature directorial debut if you can believe it, arrives at the tail-end of a supremely strange and prolific year for onscreen musicals. Heck, Tick, Tick … Boom!’s creative team has been responsible for three of them – Miranda being one of the major forces behind In the Heights and Vivo, and Levenson the writer of the instantly mockable Dear Evan Hansen. And there’s still Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Joe Wright’s Cyrano still to come. But in terms of musical-theatre bona fides and genuine, soaring emotion, Tick, Tick … Boom! drowns out its contemporaries all the way up to the rafters. Tough luck, Baby Annette.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.