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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Tick, Tick... Boom!": A Love Letter to Jonathan Larson, Broadway, and the Creative Process

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

In January 1996, the musical Rent was getting ready to begin its off-Broadway run. Just one day before it was scheduled to open, its creator, Jonathan Larson died of an aortic dissection at the age of 35. Rent opened as planned, and quickly became a massive success. It received praise and accolades, and Larson was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his work. This cemented his place as a legend in the world of musical theater, and his work inspired a whole generation of theatre lovers.

Tick, Tick... Boom! explores Larson's life years before all of that, back when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a composer. He is about to turn 30, and is feeling anxious about growing older and his lack of success. It originated as a "rock monologue", before being retooled as a three-person musical. The show explores relationships, the highs and lows of creativity, and the fear of failure, among other things. While this show hasn't received nearly as much attention as Rent, it has garnered a bit of a following over the years. With the show finally making the leap from stage to screen, it is likely to gain more fans, and deservedly so, given how this ends up being one of the better stage to screen adaptations in recent memory.

I must confess that I am a bit of a theatre nerd. I studied it in college and got my Bachelors in it, so I consider myself somewhat well-versed in various aspects of it. I'm always curious to see how films that originate from stage plays or musicals translate to the screen, as most of them either feel confined and lack any cinematic qualities, or they go way too big and too over the top for film. What Tick, Tick... Boom! does well is strike a decent balance between being this, as it rises above the minimalistic nature of the source material, but doesn't feel too much like I'm watching a stage show. It makes the transition from stage to screen rather nicely, and the changes made between the two feel necessary, and work well in the context of the film.

One of my biggest concerns I had going into the film centered on how well Lin-Manuel Miranda was going to fare as a director. Miranda has become a divisive figure in pop culture, with some people calling him a genius, and some considering him to be unbearably annoying. I personally think he isn't a bad writer, but I know that he can be a lot sometimes. This is basically because he's a stereotypical theatre kid, and the specific brand of energy he has tends to rub some people the wrong way. While It makes sense for him to take on this specific project, I still couldn't help but worry, as he didn't have any film directing experience prior to making this film. I was prepared for something far worse, but he ended up doing a decent job considering that this is his feature debut. It's not spectacular or anything, and he definitely has some areas he could improve on, but he does a much better job than I was anticipating. It's clear he has a bit of an eye for framing and considering that this is a musical, this type of film seems well in his wheelhouse. There are some minor choices that struck me as odd, but I can easily chalk these up to inexperience on Miranda's part. Regardless, he does a fairly decent job on this film, and while this is a film based on Jonathan Larson's life, he spins it in a way that makes it a more personal tale. It's clear that he relates to Larson in some ways, and he uses that to honor Larson's legacy, and to allow the audience to connect with him.

While Miranda's direction helps with getting the audience to empathize with Larson, so much of the film hinges on Andrew Garfield's portrayal of him. Thankfully, Garfield does a spectacular job here, and it might be one of the best performances of his career. He wisely avoids trying to do an impression of Larson, while still staying true to who he was as a person. It's a rather daunting task for Garfield, as he is playing a theatre person, and most theatre people are rather expressive with their emotions, and tend to be a bit (for lack of a better term) dramatic. Garfield is able to portray this specific type of emotionality, while still maintaining a sense of authenticity and nuance. He is able to pull off both these bigger, broader moments, and the more internal ones with great precision. It's one of his best performances to date, and easily one of my favorite performances of the year.

The film's supporting cast is also quite good with Robin de Jesús, Alexandra Shipp, and Judith Light especially turning in solid work. Jesús in particular is impressive, and its a bit of a shame he doesn't show up more in the film. However, he makes the best of what parts of the film he is in, and he has great chemistry with Andrew Garfield. The film also features a large amount of cameos by Broadway actors and composers, which will serve as fun easter eggs for theatre lovers. I won't spoil any of them here, but there are a few legends that show up in a rather touching tribute to Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. This scene in particular feels especially poignant in the wake of Sondheim's passing, and it is a lovely way to honor his contributions to the world of theatre.

In addition to Sunday, the film's musical numbers are highly enjoyable. The music itself is great, and there's a strong chance that a few of them will be stuck in my head for the next few days. The songs manage to be evocative of a specific time and place, while still containing some universality in the lyrics. Particular standouts include 30/90, Therapy, Come to Your Senses, and Why, as well as the aforementioned Sunday, which is arguably the most memorable of the film. As for the visual components, the bigger musical numbers feature great choreography, and sweeping camerawork, and the smaller numbers are still quite striking through certain editing choices. Above all, everyone sounds great here, which is to be expected given that all of the actors that sing have appeared on Broadway in some capacity. Andrew Garfield was the only one I wasn't sure about in this regard going into the film, but he does a great job on his songs. If anything, this film makes a strong case for casting theatre actors when adapting a musical, as it helps the numbers sound so much better.

The film's structure is interesting, but I think it's the source of my biggest issue of the film. It presents the events in a bit of a fractured way, which isn't necessarily difficult to follow, but it does disrupt the pacing and momentum of the film a little. I do like the framing device of Jonathan Larson performing the show, and us bouncing between it and the actual events of the film. I feel that the bookending voiceovers about Larson weren't fully necessary, but that may also be because it was information I already knew. The second one does make more sense, and if nothing else, it's better than the cliché of having a big block of text about the film's subject right before the credits roll. As for the rest of the script, there are some bits of dialogue that feel a bit over the top, and some of the characters aren't as fully developed as I would have liked. But as a film about Jonathan Larson, I feel it does a great job with honoring his legacy, and portraying him in an honest way.

The film as a whole is just so uplifting and inspiring, especially if you are a creative type. It truly is a love letter to what it means to create something, and it gets into the head of the artist much more effectively than other films have. It's so full-hearted, and seeks to celebrate artists and the art they create, and has a rather hopeful energy to it. If you are a theatre nerd, you will love Tick, Tick... Boom. It's basically made for theatre kids, by theatre kids, and it ends up being one of the better musical adaptations to come out within the past decade. Others may find it a bit insufferable, but that's mainly if you don't like musicals all that much to begin with. As for me, this was such an enjoyable and infectious film, and it is so joy inducing that I can't help but smile just thinking about it.

Rating: 4/5

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