Director(s): Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writer(s): Steven Levenson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens
Synopsis: On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship and the pressures of life as an artist in New York City.
Lin-Manuel Miranda might be one of the biggest names in theater… ever, akin to giants such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim, and Jonathan Larson. Sondheim and Webber have been a master of their craft for as long as anyone can remember honestly, but for Jonathan Larson, his time sadly ended too soon. That didn’t stop him from writing Rent, one of the most widely known and influential Broadway shows of all time. Rent would go on to be a cultural phenomenon in the late-90s/early-00s. It would win a Pulitzer and multiple Tony awards, but Larson would be absent from it all, passing away from an aortic aneurysm the morning of the first Off-Broadway preview of Rent.
While Rent might have been his most popular piece, tick, tick… BOOM! would be his most personal piece. Tick, tick… BOOM! is a semi-autobiographical journey of Jonathan Larson struggling with finishing his Rock Opera, days from one of the biggest moments of his theater life. He performed tick, tick… BOOM! for a few years as a Rock Monologue before finishing Rent. After his death, tick, tick… BOOM! was restructured into the 3 act musical that is most well known today.
So, it is no surprise that Lin-Manuel Miranda, a theater legend, would want to take on the project of reviving the story of a theater legend who never got to see the impact his art left on people. Miranda first got into Broadway with his work on In the Heights, which came after the run of both Rent and tick, tick… BOOM!. Miranda has come a long way from Broadway; he is 3/4 of the way done with an EGOT – currently with an Emmy, Grammy, and a Tony – and is becoming a staple when it comes to film musicals. After being a writer, actor, and producer for Broadway and Film, with tick, tick… BOOM!, he is taking his first steps into the director’s chair.
Instead of steps, Miranda leaps into the story and the music with an amount of confidence that isn’t usually shown with new directors. Just as Larson had a vision for his creations, Miranda has a vision for the film he wanted to make. This allowed Miranda to pull off one of the best stage to screen adaptations ever. This is an adaptation that is done so well, and fully utilizes the film medium to the highest high extent; to the point where – as someone who has never seen the stage musical – I don’t know if the stage performance could be as good as this film.
Miranda does this by doing what so many musical adaptations forget when they translate from stage to screen, and that’s using the new medium to expand on the story. Too many times these kinds of transitions fail because they are trying to display the same things people would go see the show for, and don’t even attempt to do anything different or new. Whether it be in a pool, a diner, or just an empty amphitheater, Miranda captures every song and moment in a way that enhances what’s being sung. It’s this kind of visionary flair that helps tick, tick… BOOM! work the way it does, because with his theater background, Miranda can see things most directors can’t. I am not sure if this type of directing can fully translate to anything that isn’t an upbeat musical, but within this realm, Miranda was near perfect.
Told in Cabaret style, Jonathan Larson – played by Andrew Garfield in what is his best role, and maybe his most defining role – is both the narrator and the main subject at hand. Jon is performing his rock monologue version of tick, tick… BOOM! telling the audience of the show his story, just like how the play is performed in real life, except now, the audience gets to actually see these moments play out as the film is edited back and forth to match up with the story and performance. This causes Garfield to basically play two roles, and in both of them he becomes Jonathan Larson in a way that’s never been seen from him before. Jonathan Larson is an anxious and determined genius with only a little over a week before two of the biggest days of his life: the workshop of his 8-year long project Superbia and his 30th birthday. Each of these moments are important for the life of Larson because, in his mind, his time is quickly running out. Garfield plays Larson as anyone who has ever had a dream of making something for not just themselves, but for the world to see. Larson is a writer – a great writer – and a visionary, but with every tick, tick, ticking of a clock he feels like his moment in time is fleeting fast. Garfield displays these idiosyncrasies of Jonathan Larson with a perfect manic charm. He is obsessed, just as any great creative has been, but he isn’t obsessed with his work as much as he is obsessed with finishing his work.
Miranda and Garfield both team up in these music heavy scenes to create such a visually appealing look at stage on screen, and Garfield delivers on the vocal side of things just as much as the acting. Starting with the opener “30/90” – one of the best intro songs of any musical movie ever – you can feel the excitement pulsating through the screen. Another highlight for me was the song “Therapy” in which both Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens maniacally tell the story of an argument between Larson and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp). The editing of this is spectacular, and again shows how Miranda used the medium of film to enhance the play. Weaving in and out of the fight with the narration of the song was purely genius, and one of my favorite musical moments ever. Even with a song like “Sunday,” Miranda utilizes so much of the medium of film to get any fan of Broadway excited. Moments like these prove how strong Lin-Manuel Miranda’s vision is as a director. One of the other stand-out music scenes was “Swimming” which includes a still manic Garfield giving choppy vocals – in a good way – to display the final straw breaking for Larson as a creative. This scene culminates in a gorgeous shot of Larson floating above the water as musical notes appear below him. It’s visually enthralling and one of my favorite shots of the entire year.
The upbeat songs aren’t the only thing Miranda and Garfield get right, as the ballads are just as engaging. On the song “Why,” after a brief conversation with his friend Michael – played by an awards worthy Robin de Jesus – Garfield narrates his downfall. It’s a magnificent piece of acting from Garfield and editing by Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum. In “Why,” Larson reflects on his past and the people around him. Sitting in an empty amphitheater, Garfield pours out his soul to a crowd of no one but himself. Someone who has always been trying to impress people and change the world is given the chance to sit alone and take in how the people around him have changed his life. It is a moment of self reflection and discovery that changed Jonathan Larson in the play, and probably in real life as well.
Because one of the great messages in tick, tick… BOOM! is how greatness can never come too late. It is never too late to follow your dreams and prove your worth. Lin-Manuel Miranda brings the stage to life in a way never seen before, and in a way that only a true theater nerd could have envisioned. Garfield gives one of the best musical performances ever, fully dissolving into the role in a way he has never done as an actor. Tick, tick… BOOM! will fill your heart with joy and music. If you don’t know who Jonathan Larson was before this movie, by the time he turns 30, you’ll know everything.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.