‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ review: Andrew Garfield shines in a marvellous musical

The tragic story of Jonathan Larson is reimagined with sensitivity and serious panache

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature-length directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom! is a musical about a man writing a musical, based on the musical of the same name. It’s got songs, OK? Set in 1990s New York, it tells the semi-autobiographical story of Jonathan Larson, the real-life composer of Broadway smash Rent, as he tries to fulfil his dreams while grappling with the fear of turning 30. “Happy birthday/You just wanna lay down and cry” he sings in the film’s opening number ‘30/90’.

In the build-up to the big three-oh, Larson works on SUPERBIA, a fantastical sci-fi show he believes is his big break. Supported by dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best pal Michael (Robin de Jesús), he juggles the project with a job at a diner. There, he’s surrounded by a community of hopeful artists who have been devastated by the AIDS epidemic.

Larson is a typical tortured artist – self-obsessed and wracked with crippling doubt about his creative abilities. In one party scene, a finance bro asks him what he does, to which he responds confidently: “I’m the future of musical theatre, Scott.” But later on Larson worries he’s not progressing quickly enough because his hero Stephen Sondheim was on Broadway by the age of 27. Michael helpfully reminds him that he’s “not Steven Sondheim”.

Garfield’s performance is a compassionate one, careful not to hide Larson’s vainer side but also presenting him sympathetically. These contrasting characteristics come to a head in the emotive ‘Why’, a song that arrives during the film’s big climax and which Garfield navigates without histrionics. It’s a poignant, enjoyable final flourish.

By now, we’re used to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s spectacular set-pieces – and Tick, Tick… Boom! doesn’t disappoint. ‘Sunday’ – a fabulous ensemble moment set in the diner – and the passive aggressive duet ‘Therapy’ are standouts. In typical musical fashion, the film flits between light and dark quickly, something that occasionally jars when the serious moments feel rushed and pushed aside for the next bits of Larson’s journey.

For those familiar with the real-life story of Jonathan Larson, they’ll know it’s a devastating one. The composer passed away on the day of Rent‘s first off-Broadway preview aged 35. Tragically, he never experienced his own success. Tick, Tick… Boom! pays tribute to those early years of graft he put in. It’s a hopeful watch – and reminds us that life won’t end in your thirties (even if Larson’s sadly did).

Details

  • Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús
  • Release date: November 19 (Netflix)
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