by Jordan King
Lin-Manuel Miranda is a man who writes – and works – like he’s running out of time. This year alone has seen the multi-hyphenate’s Broadway smash In The Heights dazzlingly brought to life on the big screen, with the New Yorker also penning the songbook for and starring in Sony Pictures Animation’s Vivo, providing lyrics for Disney’s upcoming Encanto, and also working away at the upcoming Little Mermaid live-action remake. As if that weren’t enough to put us all to shame though, Miranda has now also released his directorial debut, which pays loving tribute to another man who wrote like he was running out of time. The result, tick, tick… BOOM!, an adaptation of Larson’s own autobiographical rock musical, is a work of such conviction that it’s hard to believe this is Miranda’s first rodeo filmmaking. Fittingly, given the director and his subject’s preoccupation with the passage of time and the pressure to achieve greatness, tick, tick… BOOM! Is a breathless work of art that honours a true musical luminary tragically lost far, far too soon
Describing tick, tick… BOOM! Is somewhat difficult. Larson’s original ‘rock monologue’ is several things: it’s a reaction to the composer and playwright’s sense of rejection after his long-gestating sci-fi show SUPERBIA wasn’t picked up; it’s his reckoning with turning 30 years of age and having not yet achieved greatness (in the show, as in this film, Sondheim’s success by the time he was 27 weighed heavily on Larson’s mind); and it’s also about anxiety – anxiety about ageing, about relationships, about art, about the AIDS crisis taking many of his friends left, right, and centre as an apathetic society and government demonise and scaremonger from on high, and anxiety itself, which fizzes beneath every song and every line.
In this film adaptation, starring a sensational Andrew Garfield in the role of Larson, Miranda uses a workshop performance of tick, tick… BOOM! as a framing device for his and screenwriter Steven Levenson’s deeper excavation of the musical’s subject, his relationships, and journeys to the spaces Larson moved within that simply couldn’t be brought into such sharp focus on stage. This melding of musical with a more out-and-out drama sensibility fleshes out the original show’s quite loose narrative. Viewers are offered a far clearer sense of time and place as the playwright prepares for the SUPERBIA workshop on which he truly believes his life’s course hinges, navigating the excruciating process of writing a second act showstopper against the clock as he tries to pretend that the pursuit isn’t ruining his relationship with dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and actor-turned-advertising-marketer best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús).
Not only does Miranda’s approach offer an almost dichotomic look at Larson as self-author and subject – creating a liminal, almost ethereal space which Garfield moves within expertly – but the tension surrounding Larson’s relationships with those he holds dear and his clutching race to beat the boom he feels awaits when he hits the big 3-0 is given further weight by the context built into the film which was present only in eerie prescience in the stage show. On January 25th, 1996, in the early hours of the morning and with Rent’s Off-Broadway preview awaiting that night, Jonathan Larson suffered an aortic dissection that ended his life at just 35 years of age.
Here, the heartbreaking irony of Larson writing as if his time was running out when it really, cruelly was unbeknownst to him is woven into the fabric of the film. The juxtaposition of kinetic numbers like ‘30/90’ and the playful partygoers’ anthem ‘Boho Days’ with introspective ballads such as AIDS elegy ‘Real Life’ and the gorgeous ‘Why’ is lent greater weight by additional scenes which show the toll it takes on a writer and their loved ones when you are so driven to find a lyric for life’s every season and sensation that you lose the ability to stay present, finding yourself asking ‘Can we do this later?’ until later grows too late. The slew of cameos from Broadway stars, producers, and writers who variously owe a debt of gratitude to Larson’s work, whilst totally gratuitous and unashamedly geeky on Miranda’s part, only serves as a sobering reminder of how notable the trailblazer’s presence has been through his absence in the years since his passing. Miranda himself has cited seeing Rent at the age of 17 as a crucially formative moment in his own course as an artist, and in the presence of original cast members from that show as well as his own Hamilton ensemble and legends like Chita Rivera, it almost at times feels as if tick, tick… BOOM! is a wake with added jazz hands,
Garfield is utterly tremendous as Larson, his electric shocked hair and wide eyes promising sparks that his punchy vocals and rambunctious moves deliver in abundance. He embodies the ebullience and campiness of musical theatre kids without shying away from committing to the seriousness with which show people treat their work and the way their drive can so easily compromise their ability to express and also elicit empathy. When he’s on the phone to agent Rosa (Rivera), or entrancing enrapt partygoers, or suddenly struck with musical inspiration, it’s impossible to resist wishing you could exist in someone like Larson’s orbit; when he’s hitting a slump however, or when he’s ignoring calls and putting his real life on hold as he chases his own white whale, you see how precarious the point at which a shining star becomes a black hole truly is.
The grounding presence of Shipp’s beatific Susan and de Jesús’ realist Michael serve the telling of Larson’s story brilliantly, although Miranda’s commitment to adopting his subject’s myopic perspective, whilst artistically justified, can occasionally leave you wishing we got to know them a little better. That being said, ‘Come To Your Senses’ – the showstopper Larson spends the film trying to write – and the aforementioned ‘Why’ do what the best musical numbers do, saying in six minutes what six scenes would struggle to convey of the protagonist’s feelings towards his nearest and dearest.
There’s so much weight to Miranda’s film as it grapples with the AIDS crisis, the destructive obsessive capacity of artists, and the devastating context of Larson’s death literally on the day his dreams were about to come true, and yet a spirit and streak of pure wonder shoots through it that makes tick, tick… BOOM! feel somehow euphoric and transcendent even as it invokes existential crises and sadness. It is a cinematic experience that is incredibly validating for any of us who create, who are (and let’s face it always will be) musical theatre nerds, and who find ourselves contemplating our legacies before we’ve even been formally introduced to the world and found our footing.
There are some quibbles to be had with some of the film’s choppier editing and effect embellishments, and if you detest or are even just occasionally inclined to rolling your eyes at how relentlessly full-on musical theatre and people within that industry tend to be, then tick, tick… BOOM! will almost definitely do nothing to change your mind. However, for those who connect, an experience awaits that nails the ennui and electricity bound to the act of creation, that recognises the cage it builds for artists as well as the wings it gifts them, and I loved every second of it. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first feature is utterly indulgent, wholly reverent, and steeped from Entr’acte to Encore in adoration for the industry of musicals and their creators. The film’s greatest achievement of Miranda and Larson’s ethereal collaboration is that the two men whose work has been so marked by a sense of some looming cosmic deadline have found a way to stop the clocks and crystalise something celebratory, elegiac, and completely human. In that way, tick, tick… BOOM! already feels timeless.
tick, tick… BOOM! is available to watch on Netflix now!