Tick, Tick… Boom! isn’t a tragedy, but it’s sure tragic in context. The musical was written by Jonathan Larson—the man who’d go on to write Rent—before he achieved widespread success. It was 1990, the musical he’d been working on for nearly a decade had failed to gain traction, and he had just turned 30. His twenties were over and he was still a nobody, slaving away at a diner to afford a cramped New York apartment. So he channeled his frustrations into a new, autobiographical musical, titling it Tick, Tick… Boom! to capture the feeling that his clock was ticking—he was running out of time to do something great. His next musical was Rent. The night before Rent’s off-Broadway debut, he died of an aortic dissection at age 35.
Unlike the stage production of Tick, Tick… Boom!, the film adaption knows when Larson’s clock would stop ticking. It’s impossible to revisit the musical without mortality peeking through the curtain. The movie acknowledges this from the outset, mentioning Larson’s passing before it starts adapting his musical. This iteration of Tick, Tick… Boom! is a celebration, an adaptation, and a funeral, all at the same time. Hefty stuff for a musical. One hopes the creative team is up to the challenge.
The film is directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s obviously no stranger to musicals—but this is his first time directing a movie, and the growing pains show. In stark contrast to Miranda’s own In the Heights, which was directed with invention and verve for the screen by Jon M. Chu, Tick, Tick… Boom! is an underwhelming effort. Miranda’s experience in blocking for the stage gives him a leg up on mise-on-scène—actors and sets are creatively arranged within the frame when it counts—but overall, the placement and movement of the camera are pedestrian. The film shares an editor and a cinematographer with In the Heights, but it rarely musters a fraction of that movie’s energy. Someone’s calling some boring shots.
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Miranda’s first foray into film direction is a mismatch for the confidence of Larson’s music. Synth guitars kick up with energetic licks, but the camera’s busy disguising a scene transition at a snail’s pace. This disparity isn’t ever-present—the number “No More”, in which Larson and his friend Michael celebrate the latter’s nice apartment, is excitingly shot—but it’s noticeable, especially in the heightened reality of the musical. The direction is capable for a drama and shines in the slower, more serious numbers, but it often feels like it’s catching up to the material.
It goes without saying that the music is great—of the year’s many movie musicals, Tick, Tick… Boom! has the catchiest earworms. Larson was a talented composer. There’s a reason you read “five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes” in the way you just did. Larson’s life is compelling too: as a story, it works as a character drama, an inspirational tale, and—with the addition of hindsight—a sobering reminder that dreams have an expiration date. Taking a break from the struggle of chasing them could be a permanent decision.
The adaptation’s script, written by the playwright behind Dear Evan Hansen (uh oh), gets a little too cutesy about the implicit message. Tick, Tick’s themes—despair, death, and the danger of dreams—are whittled down into digestible life lessons like “believe in yourself” and “write what you know” and then presented as if they’re wisdoms from the mountaintop. The ending is way, way too tidy for a story that’s tragic because of its ending. The final scene teeters precariously on the edge of self-parody. But the bones of Larson’s autobiography remain intact, and it’s as funny, relatable, and emotional as ever. The clumsier touches are easy to shake off.
Tick, Tick… Boom! is a mixed bag on screen—it was originally written as a one-man show, and the expansion wears the material thin—but the performances are magisterial. Robin de Jesús, a standout from Miranda’s stage production of In the Heights, gives the absolute most to his supporting role. Michael is a complex character: a lapsed actor who about-faced into an advertising career, much to Larson’s chagrin. In his short time on screen, de Jesús embodies his multitudes beautifully. Andrew Garfield, soaking up the spotlight as Larson, is just incredible. His performance is an act of reverence, one that doesn’t fall into the trap of hero worship. By the time the film wrapped up, it felt like an enormous tragedy that I wouldn’t see any more of Larson—but Garfield was the only Larson I ever knew. I missed him when he was gone. That’s quite a testament to his portrayal of a man gone too soon. When the film falters, Garfield is its bright, guiding star.