A film review by Craig J. Koban December 8, 2021

tick...tick...BOOM! jjj

2021, R, 110 mins.

Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson  /  Alexandra Shipp as Susan  /  Robin de Jesús as Michael  /  Vanessa Hudgens as Karessa Johnson  /  Joshua Henry as Roger  /  Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim  /  Mj Rodriguez as Carolyn  /  Richard Kind as Walter Bloom  /  Judith Light as Rosa Stevens  /  Black Thought as H.A.W.K. Smooth  /  Joanna Adler as Molly  /  Joel Grey as Allan Larson

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda  /  Written by Steven Levenson, based on Jonathan Larson's musical


TICK...TICK...BOOM is a new musical biography that's equal parts uplifting, inspirational, and tragic.  

Marking the feature film directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who has made a huge cinematic splash as of late with big screen adaptations of his HAMILTON last year and IN THE HEIGHTS this year), this Netflix produced effort chronicles the all-too-brief life and career of Jonathan Larson, a musical playwright that's perhaps best known for penning RENT and never being able to bask in its glow because he passed away suddenly on the very night that it officially premiered Off-Broadway in 1996.  

Instead of giving Larson the full biopic treatment, Miranda wisely opts to chronicle a critical year in his creative career that led to RENT's inception, and one that was beset with roadblocks and hardships, and he does so by making it all a fairly straightforward, but undeniably toe-tapping musical.  TICK...TICK...BOOM may be stylistically workmanlike and sometimes struggles to find narrative cohesion, but Miranda truly finds the passionate eye and soul of his subject, played in a joyous performance of caffeinated energy by a well cast Andrew Garfield.  

TICK...TICK...BOOM (which takes its title from one of Larson's other musicals) hones in on all of the creative trials and tribulations that he had with seeing his dreams come true to final fruition, but it also headlines his day-to-day stresses living in obligatory starving artist poverty.  Compellingly, Miranda uses a framing device in his film of  having Garfield's Larson performing TICK...TICK...BOOM on stage to a New York City Theater Workshop, which, in turn, then smoothly segues into the musical within the musical of Larson's arduous year in his life.   It's 1990 and Larson is a having an awfully hard time making ends meet as a playwright.  He lives in a dreary apartment, the dreary kind that has infestations and usually no working heat, and his home life is about to get dicey when his roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus) is about to leave to peruse his own occupational goals, leaving Larson with nagging doubts about supporting himself.  He's in the process of finishing his sci-fi musical SUPERBIA (a riff on 1984), but has severe writer's block in finishing it in a few key areas.  His obsessive drives to get this musical done ends up hurting his friendships with both Michael and his lover in Susan (Alexandra Shippe).  Worse yet is that Larson is about to turn 30, which haunts him, especially seeing as his hero in Steven Sondheim made his first major smash in WEST SIDE STORY at only 27.   



Still, Larson perseveres and goes for broke, doing absolutely everything and anything needed to see SUPERBIA through (which has been a passion project for eight years) and is about to have his first official workshop production.  However, that's a scary proposition for Larson, stemming primarily from the fact that he has failed to come up with an extremely essential song that is meant to be the play's bravura, show stopping moment.  Compounding all of this is mounting debt and losing a roommate and financial partner, not to mention that Susan may be taking a new job that would require quite a bit of distance from Larson and most likely end their relationship.  If there's one area that TICK...TICK..BOOM excels in it would be in its warts and all exploration of Larson's whole creative process and his overwhelming concerns that he'll never attain the level of success that he feels he should have achieved years ago.  Miranda's film is an interesting hybrid, to say the least: It's a musical about the concoction of another musical that's based on, in turn, a playwright's own one-man autobiographical musical.  It's enough to make one go crossed eyed, to be sure, by Miranda manages to make it all seem fairly smooth and cohesive in the way it ebbs and flows from one scene to the next.  Miranda's film is also a deeply personal affair: He saw Larson's RENT as a teen, which inspired his own musical career.  Plus, he even played Larson on stage in a performance of his play, which certainly allows for him to be a well informed authority of this material. 

Of course, no musical (or musical within a musical) would be any good without memorably potent song and dance numbers, and TICK...TICK...BOOM certainly doesn't skimp out in this respect.  There's the sensitively rendered "Why" that amplifies Larson's deep ties to Michael, as well as the equally inspired "Boho Days" and "Therapy".  One nitpicky criticism that I have when it comes to these numbers is not with the abilities of the vocal talent, but the mostly blasé manner that the novice filmmaker in Miranda frames many of them.  There's not much style or panache on display with them, even though they do get by on a level of pure performance vigor by the main stars.  Miranda may need to work on finding ways to frame his musical sequences better in future endeavors (too much of TICK...TICK...BOOM feels like it lacks an unique aesthetic fingerprint), but Miranda sure knows how to bring out the most and best of his finely assembled cast, all of whom seem equally eager to please throughout. 

This brings us to Garfield, who perhaps doesn't have a complete authoritative command of a more seasoned and trained singer (he has no musical theater background and his singing voice doesn't have huge range, but it's definitely not lackluster at all and is commendably serviceable).  Where Garfield really shines, though, is in how expertly he can deep dive into Larson's boundless level of untapped, child-like wide-eyed exuberance that makes her performance so thoroughly captivating and winning here.  You gain an immediate impression of this man's pure, unfiltered love for musical theater and how his unwavering aspirations to make it big in it is so infectious.  However, Larson is shown as both a driven man of goofball charm as well as a horribly stubborn, needy, and self-serving artist that sometimes can't see the trees because the forest is in the way, which has negative side effects of hurting people close to him that wish to be on his side, but nevertheless feel alienated by his obsessions.  Garfield's work here is not one-note and superficial (we've seen countless iterations of these type of zealot-like driven artists in films before), and he manages to make Larson paradoxically a warm and inviting presence as well as a person that could easily exhaust and push away people with relative ease.  Thankfully, TICK...TICK...BOOM wisely underscores the risks that people like Larson take in the highly desperate theater world.  In many respects, the film asks us to understand the taxing sacrifices that Larson made on his journey towards career success, that was dreadfully cut short when he suffered aortic dissection that was believed to be cause by undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome, leading to his death on January 25, 1996.  After RENT became a gargantuan critical and audience smash, Larson won three posthumous Tony Awards and one posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama.   

It's so sadly ironic that he never lived to see his meteoric accomplishments in his industry and died pathetically young at just 36.  Miranda doesn't let TICK...TICK...BOOM wallow in doom and misery, though, and instead lets Larson's story serve as a love letter/ballad to struggling creative minds everywhere that are just barely hanging in by a thread to get their small piece of an ever elusive pie.  And Larson's work had a seismic impact on so many, including Miranda (without him, there arguably would be no HAMILTON or INTO THE HEIGHTS).  TICK...TICK...BOOM is not, as mentioned, without its faults (sometimes the film struggles for focus and attaining symmetry and, more often than not, feels too much like a loosely strung together series of vignettes and asides versus a fully formed story), but this film's heart is clearly in the right place.  The core message is as old as the movies: don't abandon your dreams...no matter what.  Yeah, this and the beleaguered artist having the world conspire against and closing in on them angle has been explored and done better in other films before, but TICK...TICK...BOOM remains an affectionate rendered rallying cry salute to the dream makers of the stage that paved the way and showed it was indeed possible.  

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