Entertainment

Film review: Tick, Tick … Boom!


Andrew Garfield lights the fuse on this one with his explosive performance as a blocked playwright, circa 1990

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Art imitates life striving to create art based on artistic life in the new musical Tick, Tick… Boom! That sounds more complicated than it is. The directing debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda ( Hamilton ), Tick, Tick… Boom! is weird to write and hard to explain but easy to enjoy. As the opening prologue notes: “Everything you’re about to see is true, except for the parts Jonathan made up.”

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That would be Jonathan Larson, an American playwright who died in 1996, just shy of his 36th birthday and on the day of the first Off-Broadway preview performance of his new play Rent . That almost unbelievably ironic tragedy brought down the curtain on his short and creative life, now given a posthumous encore by screenwriter Steven Levenson, whose writing credits include Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and TV’s Fosse/Verdon .

Before he wrote Rent , Larson had some success with a one-man “rock monologue” called 30/90 ( named for his age in 1990), later retitled Boho Days and then Tick, Tick … Boom! And before THAT happened, he’d spent the better part of a decade on Superbia , a futuristic dystopian musical loosely based on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four . Tick, Tick … Boom! was about that fruitless but scene-setting stage of his life.

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And so Tick, Tick … Boom! (the movie) gives us Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) performing Tick, Tick … Boom! (the play), with copious flashbacks to the events that led up Tick, Tick … Boom! (the … whatever). Clear?

Garfield throws himself into the role of Larson. Although the character is backed up at times by his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), his good friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) and talented singer Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), the one-man-show nature of Tick, Tick … Boom! requires a lot of screen time from its star, not to mention singing. And he delivers.

Miscast and out of place as Jim Bakker in this year’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye , Garfield combines his stage and screen talents – remember that he won a Tony for Angels in America shortly before his Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge – into a vibrant, dare I say explosive performance.

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Meanwhile, Miranda has been so ubiquitous of late – scoring and starring and singing in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns ; lending his voice to this year’s animated Vivo and the upcoming Encanto ; helping to adapt his Broadway musical In the Heights for the big screen; not to mention all things Hamilton – that it’s amazing to realize he’s never directed a feature film until now.

But he does a good job here, balancing the musical-ness of the story with set pieces in realistic locations like Larson’s squalid New York apartment, his friend and former roommate Michael’s new luxury digs, or the advertising firm where Michael has gone to earn some real money, and where Larson, lured by luscious lucre, nearly follows.

We also get a real sense of Larson’s rising panic, hemmed in as he is by his go-nowhere job in a diner, freaked out at turning 30, and unable to write one last number for a key scene in Superbia . This despite, or more likely because of, urging from his patron Ira (playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman) and from his hero Stephen Sondheim, played with delicious, delicate comic understatement by Bradley Whitford.

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And speaking of Superbia , we see and hear just enough of that show – cherry-picked no doubt, but still – to believe that it might have been a diamond in the rough, and a handy bit of prognostication. Imagine from the point of view of 1990 a digital future where citizens are glued to pocket video screens that carry meaningless videos made by the rich and famous!

Of course, Larson’s stopgap musical number proves to be a real showstopper, which is just another example of the movie’s pitch-perfect timing. When it comes to musical theatre, Miranda knows what makes it tick, and what goes boom. And Garfield is there to light the fuse.

Tick, Tick … Boom! is available Nov. 19 on Netflix.

4 stars out of 5

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