Theatre kids are always a little insufferable. It’s just part of their DNA. And Tick, Tick… Boom! is created entirely by them and for them, adapted by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda from a stage show by Rent’s Jonathan Larson. Inevitably, this will annoy some – they’ll find it all far too earnest, too shameless in its desire for likeability. But what other kind of person would seek a life where every emotion lives in search of a beat? Who else would be prepared, night after night, to bear their wounds and secret joys for all to see?
Still, Tick, Tick… Boom! saves itself from the navel-gazing brink by having both Larson’s writing, and Miranda’s staging of that writing, repeatedly acknowledge the narcissistic insularity of the Broadway world. Its premise reads like parody: a straight white guy drives himself to misery because he hasn’t written the next great American musical by the age of 30. He can’t believe the world didn’t fall head over heels for his last project, a futuristic rock opera titled Superbia. The “tick, tick” of the title is the invisible clock counting down to the fate of permanent obscurity.
Except, it isn’t. Not really. Larson was writing about his own life. Superbia was real, and Tick, Tick… Boom! was his autobiographical way to shoulder its failure (he’s played onscreen by Andrew Garfield). Larson would go on to write the great American musical of his generation, but would die from an aortic dissection on the day Rent was due to have its first preview performance. Miranda’s film finds a graceful balance between fact and fiction, framing art as a heightened form of self-obsession and the most magical and important thing in the world.
And why shouldn’t Miranda be allowed to celebrate his craft? He is the Larson of his own generation, Hollywood’s go-to music man, with that same urgent, electric drive to his work. This year alone, he’s seen his musical In the Heights adapted to film and contributed songs to the animations Vivo and Disney’s Encanto. The fact Tick, Tick… Boom! only now marks his directorial debut comes almost as a surprise. After this, will there be no more worlds to conquer? The film, as one might expect, is enthusiastically self-referential when it comes to Broadway tradition. Not only is composer Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford with a withering look) treated practically as a living god, but Miranda never throws away his shot (get it?) when there’s a musical reference to be made – to the old, to the new, to his own work.
Garfield is happy to play along with the Broadway love-in. As Larson, he always looks as if he’s just been electric shocked. He’s so wide-eyed, open, loving and present in the role, in ways that constantly pull the film back from the brink of self-indulgence. You believe wholeheartedly that he is Larson, and has always been, which is especially impressive considering he has almost no previous singing experience. Miranda, meanwhile, cuts between the narrative and Jonathan’s retelling of that narrative on stage, as a nod to the monologue structure of Larson’s original show. It’s a neat little metaphor in itself, reminding us of how the artistic mind is constantly interpreting personal experience as potential material – a fact which, at one point, becomes crucial to the plot.
The Larson of Tick, Tick… Boom! is so in love with the artist’s life that he’s made himself a willing fool. When his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), announces that she’s moving out of New York City to teach dance, he’s jealous of her stability while acting spiritually betrayed. The same goes for his friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), who traded in his acting career for an advertising job and “never looked back”. His feelings are corrosive, and the film shows little sympathy towards Jonathan’s delusion that his life might as well be over at 30, right when so many lives around him are being cut short by Aids. Tick, Tick… Boom! is as self-aware as it is impassioned – maybe it’ll finally convince someone that theatre kids aren’t that bad after all.
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