Andrew Garfield Is Amazing In “tick, tick…BOOM!”, A Marvelous Movie That Hits The Right Notes
Jonathan Larson is a name any theater geek will recognize. The man who created the iconic Broadway musical Rent has inspired many, one of whom is Lin-Manuel Miranda. Obviously Miranda has become a sensation in the musical world, not only due to the mega success of Hamilton, but also by creating In The Heights (which was adapted into a film this past summer), co-starring in Mary Poppins Returns, and offering his various talents to several animated movies such as Moana. Well, now you can add feature film director to that list.
I’m happy to report he chose his first project wisely, and that his passion for it is evident in the best of ways. If I didn’t know who had made the film, I never would have suspected it was someone’s first time directing a movie. tick, tick…BOOM! is based on the “rock monologue” Jonathan Larson wrote in 1990, six years before Rent was first performed. It’s about a character named Jon who is struggling to finish his musical, entitled “Superbia,” as his 30th birthday looms over him. It was even originally called 30/90 as a reference to the birthday happening in the year 1990. The character Jon worries he’s not spending his time correctly and wonders if he’s too old to accomplish his dreams. This inner ticking clock he’s concerned with is not only where the story gets its title, but represents a concern all of us can relate to. All of us compare ourselves to others at some point. We worry when we should get married (if at all), when to have kids (if at all), when (and where) to buy a house, and yes, we wonder if our career is heading in the right direction.
As you can tell by the character being named Jon, the show has autobiographical elements. The piece was originally performed in 1990 (by Larson himself) as a one man show. After Rent, producers wanted to get their hands on other works Larson had done, and it resulted in the retooling of tick, tick…BOOM! into a three person off-broadway show in 2001. The changes were made as a result of Larson’s passing in 1996, before Rent became a phenomenon. The retooling was mostly handled by Tony Award Winner David Auburn, who used Larson’s many notes to help craft the changes. This creates a fascinating scenario where the lead character has basically written himself, while the production was crafted by those who know the full weight of his legacy. It’s not a biopic, but some elements of one pop up. I felt the urgency Jon feels in a profound way, knowing he would only celebrate a precious few more birthdays.
It’s bittersweet that Larson’s work found miraculous success that he never witnessed for himself. Miranda does a lovely job injecting that bittersweetness into this story. He blends the off-broadway show with well conceived cinematic moments and more blatant references to Larson’s real life. The characters are charming out of the gate in a way that pulls us into their lives and makes us care about them. Some beats are effortlessly funny while the dramatic portions left me riveted or teary eyed. As expected, the singing and dancing is very well done, and Miranda moves the camera with a confidence not always found in a first time filmmaker. This all combines to make a highly engaging and fulfilling experience. At the center of it all is Andrew Garfield as Jon.
Garfield turns in one of his best performances here, and he’s given great performances in works such as The Social Network, Silence, and Hacksaw Ridge, for which he was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. He even won a Tony Award for Lead Actor in Angels In America. Even with that resume, I can confidently say this is one of his very best performances. It’s a role that allows him to showcase his dramatic chops, comedic talent, charisma, and singing ability alike. He has great chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with. I believed the relationships he had with everyone at all times because of Garfield’s ability to communicate with his body language. It’s especially effective in this role because he has quieter realistic scenes to navigate as well as big musical sequences that depend on his perspective. We can see why some characters get frustrated with him, but want it all to work out since it’s easy to root for Jon. We understand his behavior and are invested in the outcome. I’m so glad to see Garfield in a movie as good as this. He’s immensely talented and capable of challenging material. It’s also very appreciated that he has a delightful singing voice, as that’s not always the case in movie musicals.
The two other major characters are Susan, played by Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon), and Michael, portrayed by Robin de Jesus (The Boys In The Band). Susan is a dancer who is dating Jon and debating whether or not to take a job that will take her out of the city. Jon is so focused on what he’s going through, that he keeps putting off her need to talk about this decision. The two have a batch of great scenes together that enhance the story and themes at play. Oftentimes a relationship in a movie like this can feel stale, or shoehorned in to check a certain box. Not so here. Susan is her own person who feels essential to the story, and she gets some wonderful stand out moments. We know exactly what Susan is thinking at all times, even when she’s not speaking or saying something else. Shipp has stood out in several nice roles and even lifted something as mediocre as Jexi into a much more entertaining place. She has a welcoming presence onscreen and this is her best showcase in a movie yet.
Meanwhile, Michael is Jon’s best friend who is moving out of their apartment and into a nicer living situation. Michael’s solid career path provides a strong contrast to Jon chasing his passion. The great thing here is that nothing is formulaic or done in a preachy manner. The characters’ different lives and emotional journey’s feel authentic. These plots and characters can go very wrong no matter how true the story is or how much effort the actor gives. If the writing and directing doesn’t flow well or keep us immersed in their particular problems, then spending time with them will feel tedious and like a speed bump along the way. When a movie like this brings us in so well, everything feels natural and we’re simply along for the ride and happy with what scene we find ourselves in next. Michael is performed beautifully by Robin de Jesus, as one of the most delightful sequences in the movie is one he and Garfield share early in the film and he effectively navigates a multitude of emotions with ease.
There are other standouts among the cast, most notably Vanessa Hudgens as Karessa. She doesn’t have much of a dramatic arc, but she adds an endearing quality to several songs and performs the hell out of one that really needed to hit big, and does with her assistance. There are several fun, brief appearances, one being Bradley Whitford, who plays a beloved figure Jon idolizes. It’s a part of the movie I don’t want to ruin as it really serves the story well if you don’t know much about it. Whitford performs the role with a breezy confidence that endears us to him despite minimal screentime. Judith Light as Rosa, Jon’s agent, is another standout. She’s a fun character and another reason to not look away from the screen, even for a moment. In truth, I think every actor is great here, adding intriguing flavors to an already flavorful dish.
A ton of credit for how cinematic tick, tick… BOOM! is must go to cinematographer Alice Brooks. Her work leaves the film soaked in the early 90’s while capturing the various emotions of the characters brilliantly. Some films feel stuck in one static look or seem too polished. It’s easy to make something feel a touch off in a period piece, but in this instance Brooks uses the setting to her advantage. This movie plays extremely well in a theater, not only because it sounds great, but because it looks great. Often (not always) Netflix films can look indistinct, especially their comedies or more “mainstream” features, such as their big budget action flciks. With the major talent involved here this could have been a less artistic and more glossy project, which would have been a disservice to the story. I hope the awards bodies give some love to Brooks, the cast, and the rest of the production outside of just the sound departments. It can be easy to overlook a musical and only give any recognition to, well…the music. This movie deserves better treatment than that.
I’ve made it pretty clear that I like this movie a lot. Some may be cautious about musicals or think this one wears its heart on its sleeve too much, but I’d respectfully disagree. A movie can be full of passion and be impactful without being manipulative or overly sentimental in a way that lacks depth. Emotional intelligence is what I look for, and this movie actively seeks that out and finds it in spades. Steven Levenson’s screenplay brings out the best of Larson’s project while helping Miranda find great moments between the characters. Then they pepper in interesting details about the real Larson (apparently even meticulously re-creating his apartment). The end result is truly engrossing. As of November 12th, it may even be my favorite movie of 2021 so far. So yeah, it would be fair to say I highly recommend it. If you like musicals, don’t miss it. If you don’t like musicals…give it a chance anyway. It’s a damn fine movie.
tick, tick…BOOM! will be available on Netflix November 19th and is currently playing in select theaters.
Psst, Fun Facts: In 2014, Lin-Manuel Miranda starred as Jon in the New York City Center production of tick, tick…BOOM!, as part of its Encores! series. It also featured Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton, One Night In Miami) as Michael, and Tony Award Winner Karen Olivo as Susan. Olivo also originated the role of Vanessa in Miranda’s In The Heights in 2008. Not only that, but Olivo joined the original cast of Rent in 1997 as a replacement swing.