There are two anomalous aspects of this adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s 1990s personal stage performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda, in his directorial feature debut. One is the title, presented early on with decidedly apocalyptical overtones (after all, what else could that “BOOM” be—except, just maybe, the culmination of a creative process?). The other is a song near the end that’s a call to social/political engagement: about how the latest generation of young people must “wake up” or “we’ll eat the dust of the world….”
Fortunately, neither of these didacticisms has much if anything to do with the film’s narrative, which is constructed on a familiar foundation: a talented composer and charismatic young man, seeking recognition and success in the notoriously fickle business of Broadway musicals, overcomes obstacles (money, writer’s block, despondency, a dingy apartment, the siren call of a girlfriend) and deadlines (he’s days from turning 30, which is understood to be “old”; he must have a song before his workshop is staged; his girlfriend insists he decide whether to leave New York and move to the Berkshires with her). Consistent with traditional narratives, it’s out of this catharsis that he produces the song that’s been lacking, a love ballad to his girlfriend, Susan.
The “young man” is Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), a real person who achieved real success with the smash-hit “Rent,” which premiered in 1996, shortly after Larson died. (“Write what you know,” is one piece of advice he’s given.) But this musical docudrama is much more complex than the standard biopic. Miranda creatively moves a straightforward one-man performance onto film, exploiting all that medium has to offer. On one level, “tick, tick…BOOM!” is that stage show, with Larson presenting his life story through musical performance; all song, no dance. On another level, the film takes place in a variety of “real life” settings, including Jonathan’s apartment (complete with rooftop), the diner where he works, and the upscale apartment and building lobby of his gay friend Michael, an advertising executive who represents the life outside show business for which Jonathan might have to settle. Still other scenes are of a workshop/musical reading (Steven Sondheim [Bradley Whitford] in the back row) of Larson’s fledgling musical “Superbia,” set in a sci-fi future. And there are home movies, identified by a square screen and a nostalgic fuzziness, which feature life-long friends Jonathan and Michael (who is Hispanic), performing as high school students in “West Side Story.”
It’s a lot to digest, visually—yet worth the effort. Garfield is manic—especially in the early going, and for anyone other than a fan of musicals, it’s hard to find one’s bearings in that first half hour. But improbably—given his other performances, including the Oscar-nominated one in “Hacksaw Ridge” and an outing in a Spider-Man suit—Garfield is also utterly engaging and credible as the boyish, agonizing genius (a version of the film’s director) whose obsession with his song-writing, and with himself to the exclusion of others, threatens to derail the project at a crucial juncture. (The hero must have a weakness.) Michael (Robin de Jesus) is solid as the earnest, and HIV-positive, best friend, and Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is lovely and sympathetic as the other half of a couple that the film does not “make.” To make sure we understand the unique and extraordinary capabilities of Jonathan, a very funny scene features the hyper-creative Larson among ordinary humans in a marketing focus group.
The characters that make up Larson’s theater contacts—his agent, Rose (Judith Light) and a producer, Ira (Jonathan Marc Sherman) are either caricatures or uninteresting. It seems unlikely (though not impossible) that the notes to Larson’s break-through song would appear to him on the bottom of a swimming pool, and having Sondheim leave a message on Larson’s answering machine, while there to make it clear that Larson is worthy, seems like overkill.
“tick tick…BOOM!” is Miranda’s ode to the musical form. He starts with Sondheim, who changed the form dramatically, then segues to Larson, whom he also views as advancing the genre, and then, of course, to himself, who with “Hamilton” set the musical theater world on fire. The film is replete with citations to Broadway shows past and present: from Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, to “Mary Poppins.” The signature song, “Sunday,” brings to a close what would be the first act in a stage play; it begins with the workers of the Moondance Diner just doing their jobs, and morphs into a song-and-dance number with a surfeit of Broadway greats. Aficionados will recognize Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Phylicia Rashad, and veterans of “Rent” and “Hamilton.” The walls of the diner, and the musical, literally come down in this paean to musical theater.
This is a superb piece of film making, a spirited, moving, captivating tour de force of energy and imagination. Tick, tick…BOOM!
Stars: 3 1/2 (out of 4)
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Robin de Jesus, Bradley Whitford, Alexandra Shipp, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Phylicia Rashad, Judith Light, Jonathan Marc Sherman
Other Awards: 9 wins (including several Best Actors and AFI’s Best Movie of the Year) and 52 nominations to date.
Runtime: 115 minutes
Country: United States
Availability: to date, only on Netflix; see JustWatch here for updates.
Leed image: Miranda’s ode to the Broadway musical form is creatively set in the (yes, it was real) Moondance Diner.