The opening of Tick, Tick… Boom! is the most exhilarating ten minutes captured on film this year.
The biographical musical, about playwright Jonathan Larson, bursts right through the gate with “30/90,” a piano-rock epic about the ensuing panic that accompanies departing your twenties and whatever claims to youth you had left. The sequence is a powerhouse collage of vocals, choreography, and sweeping camera work, which director Lin-Manuel Miranda stitches together with a steady, confident hand. It’s a cinematic inferno that surrounds and burns you with searing energy so intense that a less-restrained person might burst into applause when the number is over. “30/90” is the closest many of us will get to a genuine theatrical experience for a while.
The curse of such a stunning opener is the difficulty in maintaining the momentum. It’s an inherent risk of adapting musical theater to film: can the director keep audiences engaged between the passionate bursts of the musical numbers, or will the requisite balancing act be too much?
At this particular moment in time, Jonathan Larson’s story is all about balance, or the lack thereof. Tick, Tick… Boom! recounts the week before Larson (Andrew Garfield) workshops his first-ever musical, Superbia, through the lens of the rock monologue that the film is based on (it is both a biopic and musical adaptation). The fact that Superbia coincides with his 30th birthday leaves the ambitious and passionate creative in a juggling act: writing music at the eleventh hour, paying his bills, maintaining his close-knit community as the AIDS epidemic tears through it, and fighting for his relationship with dancer/teacher Susan (Alexandra Shipp). Larson is a person who lives on the fumes of will and charisma alone, but even he feels the threads of his clothes beginning to rip. Something eventually has to give.
For anyone familiar with the creative process, including yours truly, Larson’s journey to his workshop is incredibly and uncomfortably familiar: the endless distractions, the procrastination, the necessary evils of self-absorption and self-promotion. It is an exhausting, brutalizing, wondrous exercise, and Miranda gives it the weight it deserves. The quietly heartbreaking “Johnny Can’t Decide” and the devastating show-stopper “Why” are among Tick, Tick, Boom!’s brightest moments, conveying the emotional consequences of when artistic and personal ambitions clash. The earnestness in which Miranda renders these moments best reflects his musical theater sensibilities while still keeping sight of the medium he’s working in.
Unfortunately, Miranda struggles with balance just like Larson. There is much to love and admire about what the first-time director accomplishes, emphasis on a lot, sometimes crossing the border into too much. With so much hopping between the framing device that is the Tick, Tick… Boom! musical and the lead-up and immediate aftermath of Superbia’s presentation, it’s hard to keep track of where our attention should be. That doesn’t factor in the flashbacks, fantasies, real-life footage, and other ticks that distract from the story. I didn’t realize that the framing device wasn’t the fully realized version of Superbia until the very end when a voiceover explained how the device works.
I’m not familiar with the source material to speak to the significance of the musical numbers in that context. Still, some, particularly those in the second act, feel either superfluous or ineffective for the film. “Therapy,” a satire about Larson and Susan’s deteriorating relationship, undercuts the emotional intensity of their split, despite the sterling efforts of Garfield and Shipp. “Play Game” is a hip-hop interlude that adds nothing to the plot or Larson’s character. “Sunday” will delight musical theater fans with its numerous cameos (including a healthy Hamilton contingent), but the fantasy sputters the momentum. None of the Superbia numbers spoke to me personally. While not grossly overlong, the film could’ve benefitted from tighter editing. It would’ve helped Miranda keep tighter control of the narrative and perhaps uncover some more compelling insights along the way (like how the brief but consistent flashes of the AIDS epidemic influenced and inspired him to write Rent).
In the center of Tick, Tick… Boom!‘s slightly uncontrolled chaos is Garfield. To call his performance a tour-de-force might be the understatement of the year. He is marvelous every second he’s on-screen, expertly capturing Larson’s creative mania and creeping anxiety while exuding irresistible, bright-eyed charisma and deft dramatic power. It’s crazy that Miranda can cut away from him as often as he does. He’s also an excellent vocalist who nakedly embraces the emotions he sings in a way reminiscent of early Barbra Streisand. He will make you want to cry at least twice. It is the best performance of his career and one of the best performances of the year; anything less than an Oscar nomination would be a blemish on the Academy. He is surrounded by a great cast, including a charming Robin de Jesús as his best friend Michael, and Shipp, who radiates loving warmth as his quiet but supportive girlfriend Susan.
Tick, Tick…Boom! can be a lot of things: an Andrew Garfield showcase, a celebration of Jonathan Larson’s gifts, a love letter to Broadway, a meditation on the creative process, and a compelling musical theater adaptation. It is a stunningly ambitious effort that is more remarkable given it is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut. However, like Larson’s Superbia, there are some rough edges and confounding elements that keep it from being the next great American musical. To borrow from the producers at Superbia’s presentation I’m glad he made it, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.