Review: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick…Boom! pays tribute to creative process

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(Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp. Photo courtesy of AFI)

tick, tick…Boom! is an affectionate and triumphant musical based on a musical about writing a musical that explores the life and work of Broadway composer and playwright, Jonathan Larson, before the success of his Broadway hit musical Rent.

Reel 360 had the pleasure of attending the world premiere of the film during the opening night of AFI Festival.

Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel-Miranda’s (Hamilton, In the Heights) directorial debut serves as a series of love letters to artists and their creative process and expression, as the story focuses on the iconic Larson bringing his one-man rock monologue, tick tick… Boom!, to life.

According to Miranda, before Hamilton and even before In the Heights, he was inspired by what Larson had accomplished with Rent, which Miranda expressed, “… made me love musicals and then finally aspire to make them myself.”

Taking place in the 1990’s, tick, tick…Boom! stars Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson, Joshua Henry, MJ Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter, Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens. The story was adapted by Steven Levenson based on Larson’s musical.

Jon (Academy Award nominee and Tony Award winner Andrew Garfield) is an ambitious theater composer who’s waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990 while writing what he hopes will be the next great American musical.

Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a make-or-break performance and his 30th birthday, Jon is feeling the pressure from everywhere: from his girlfriend Susan, who dreams of an artistic life beyond New York City; from his friend Michael, who has moved on from his dream to a life of financial security; amidst an artistic community being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic.

Larson, like many creatives, is anxiety-ridden that his window for success has closed or is nearly there. Comparing himself to other successful playwrights depresses Larson even more so.

When he lands a low-budget workshop for his Orwellian musical Superbia, Larson hopes this will serve as a rocket launcher for his career. However, his benefactor Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman) insists that Jonathan first writes an additional — and crucial — song for the second act. This is a note he’d previously ignored even though it was delivered by his hero Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford).

Larson gets struck with writer’s block and becomes consumed with working on the project at the expense of everything else in his life, including the people closest to him, like Michael who is HIV-positive.

With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and faces the question everyone must reckon with: What are we meant to do with the time we have? tick, tick…BOOM! 

tick tick…Boom! resembles an artist’s cramped apartment in its two-hour running time — a homage to New York, a depiction of the HIV pandemic in the 90’s,  a rock musical, a coming of age story, a love letter to the theatre, musicals, and all creatives who suffer for their art, a never before seen portrayal of the life of Jonathan Larson, but above all, the film is the in-depth exploration of the dissatisfied and anxiety-ridden existence of an artist who is overwhelmed with their desire to express that spark within them through their art and how their need to fulfill that creative destiny costumes their life… as the hands of time tick.

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For all artists, there is a quickening life force, that is pulsating within and can only be channeled into one’s art. It’s a constant gnawing at the mind of all the things left unexpressed and uncreated that keep artists up at night hearing the ticking hands of time reminding them there’s only so many hour, minutes, seconds, and years to channel that enigma into their art. 

Every artist hears it.

For Larson, this feeling was amplified and even prophetic in the way that it foreshadowed his own time, which was cut short. Larson died at age 35 on Jan. 25, 1996, the morning of his  “next great American musical” Rent’s first Off-Broadway preview.

The concept of time is ever-pressing from the title, to the opening number called 30/90 expressing the existential angst of an artist who hasn’t lived up to being a protege upon their 30th birthday, to the artistic community being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic ending young lives too soon. All these things set the scene for the rock musical monologue that is tick, tick…Boom! and serve as the inspiration to Larson’s voice of a generation musical Rent.

It’s quite a challenge to adapt from stage to the screen, but Miranda and his team have certainly accomplished this feat withstanding a standing ovation, applause after every musical number, and rave reviews.

tick, tick…Boom! stars Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson, Joshua Henry, MJ Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter, Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens. The story was adapted by Steven Levenson based on Larson’s musical. Choreography by Ryan Heffington, is produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Julie Oh and Miranda, with Celia Costas, Julie Larson and Levenson as executive producers.

Netflix’s tick, tick…BOOM! will premiere in theaters on November 12, 2021 and will hit streaming a week later on November 19th.

BOTTOM LINEtick…tick Boom! is a REEL SEE.

Megan Penn reports on the indie film market and anything that empowers women and underrepresented groups. 

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