Review: Lin Manuel Miranda Makes 'tick, tick... BOOM!' Genuine and Inventive

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 12, 2021

Andrew Garfield in 'tick...tick...BOOM!'
Andrew Garfield in 'tick...tick...BOOM!'  (Source:Netflix)

Lin-Manuel Miranda directs the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson's play "tick, tick... BOOM!," bringing an authenticity to the experience of creating a musical — the fear, the frustration, and the overriding optimism that Miranda (the force behind "Hamilton" and co-creator of "In the Heights") must know well.

"tick, tick... BOOM!" tells the story of Larson's struggle to put together a presentation of a science fiction musical he calls "Superbia." Set in a toxic future, it's about how people spend all their time fixed on their "media delivery devices," and patterning their lives after TV programs. (All in all, Larson more or less hit the nail on the head.)

The problem is that no one understands what he's going for, and no one thinks the show is going to succeed. Larson (played by British actor Andrew Garfield) swims recreationally, for exercise and to clear his head, but he's swimming upstream when it comes to getting anyone to pay attention to his idea. A few key people do, however, take notice: Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman), who oversees Musical Theater at Playwrights Horizon, helps secure a space and a meager budget; Rosa (Judith Light), the agent who's been ghosting him, enters the fray in a barely timely manner; and no less than Steven Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) appears, like a fairy godmother, to offer encouragement and some crucial advice: The show needs another song at a key juncture, or else it's never going to work.

Jon's friends are encouraging, but also feel the strain of his intense self absorption. Girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) has been offered an amazing job in the Berkshires, and wants to discuss it with him. Best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) has given up on his acting career and moved to a nice apartment building, but still wants to connect. Carolyn (Mj Rodriguez), who runs the diner where Jon works, isn't thrilled that he's given his notice, convinced that a big time producer will see the presentation and instantly write him a fat check. And another diner buddy, Freddy (Ben Levi Ross), is sick in the hospital with HIV; Jon knows he should go pay Freddy a visit, but he just doesn't have time. In fact, he doesn't have time for anyone or anything except for the presentation. But are the time-consuming pressures of his creative life genuinely so overwhelming? Or is he using work as an excuse to duck the hard and scary things in his life?

In other words — as Michael puts it — is Jon responding to the situation out of love? Or fear?

We're told that everything that happens in the film is true, "except for the things Jonathan made up" — and the story does have a genuine ring about it, both in the characterizations (artists don't get a reputation for being self-centered and for cannibalizing their own life and the lives of others for nothing) and in small, telling incidents (as when Jon tells Michael he's "an angel on Earth," in a nod to the character of Angel in "RENT," which Jon is still years away from completing).

What also feels true is the way Jon freaks himself out over the new song to the point of paralysis (and this is someone who can ad lib a rousing, "RENT"-like tune, with the theme of "Bohemia," no less, at the drop of a party hat, or whip up a jingle about sugar off the cuff). Jon also has another, entirely different reason for his panic: It's 1990, and he's less than a week from his 30th birthday. He feels that time is running out, and his art is going nowhere. "BOOM!," indeed.

The movie is well written (by Steven Levenson, based on Larson's play) and competently directed by Miranda, who displays some impressive visual inventiveness. It also often feels, however, like the reverse side of a tapestry or, in more mundane terms, a sort of "Behind the Music" look at Larson's pre-"RENT" life and struggles. The songs underscore the impression; they are uniformly energetic, and there are a couple of gorgeous numbers that break the mold, but most of the setlist feels prototypical of, and cut from the same cloth, as the songs from Larson's bigger, better-known work.

Still, this is a worthwhile two hours, filled with fun (you can sense Larson laughing at himself, and his cheeky homage/sendup of "Sunday in the Park with George" is a clever shorthand for how a younger artist might try to copy an admired older one) and some fine performances. Garfield is still in "Spider-Man" shape (as we see during his swimming scenes), and he convinces as an ambitious artist facing the end of his twenties who still feels he has everything to prove. Rodriguez has a small role, but captures the screen every time she's on it. de Jesus is absolutely magnetic, and needs to be in more movies. (Michael is more of a love interest than Susan, frankly, and that's nowhere more evident than in a fantastic pas de deux between Michael and Jon that happens early in the film.)

The role of Susan is underwritten, and the character often feels like she's only there to point up Jon's shirking of his personal relationships. Despite that, her character is, in some ways, meant to be the film's most substantial connective tissue, and Shipp invests the role with a completely devoted performance. Whitford as Steven Sondheim could fool you for a moment into thinking the genuine article had agreed to participate in the movie; he perfectly inhabits the role, nailing the Broadway legend's look and body language.

If you're still high on Jon M. Chu's movie version of "In the Heights" (and excited for his next musical adaptation, "Wicked"), and chomping at the bit to see what Steven Spielberg is going to do with "West Side Story," this is the perfect movie at the perfect time to keep your feet tapping and your "Broadway by way of Hollywood" buzz going strong.

"tick, tick... BOOM!" hits select theaters Nov. 12 and streams at Netflix starting Nov. 19.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Streaming Reviews

This story is part of our special report titled Streaming Reviews. Want to read more? Here's the full list.