Tick, Tick…Boom!, review: Andrew Garfield has a ball in this jet-propelled vérité rock opera
12A cert, 120 mins. Dir: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Before we start, a quick clarification: Tick, Tick…Boom! is a musical based on a musical about the writing of a musical the musical’s writer wrote before the musical this musical is based on, which was the musical he wrote before writing the musical that made him famous. It’s good to clear that up now, because otherwise this review might have been confusing.
The writer in question is Jonathan Larson, whose landmark 1996 show Rent – a pop-rock revamp of Puccini’s La Bohème – was one of those cultural sensations that manages to shunt an entire art form into a new evolutionary phase. Larson didn’t see its impact, though, and died at the age of 35 of a rare heart condition on the night before its first preview performance. Tick, Tick…Boom! was Rent’s little-known older sibling: a confessional monologue Larson wrote in his late twenties about his painfully prescient fear that his time to make a mark was running short.
This film adaptation, written by Fosse/Verdon’s Steven Levenson and directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton and In the Heights, brilliantly expands Larson’s solo piece into an explosively entertaining vérité rock opera: Larson himself is played with a gremlin-ish charm and exhilarating, loose-hosepipe energy by Andrew Garfield.
It’s the late 1980s, and Jonathan is nearing his 30th birthday, a milestone he has freighted with make-or-break significance. By that age, his idol Stephen Sondheim had already written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. But he’s still mashing away at an electric keyboard in his grotty New York bedsit, sustained by a job waiting tables at a local diner and a five-word compliment Sondheim once paid him at a writers’ workshop. (Bradley Whitford is a joy as the film’s affectionate caricature of the old Broadway master, who crops up in a handful of scenes, looking like a hungover owl.)
Music that means nothing comes to Jonathan with ease. The moment the mood droops at a house party, he can improvise an a cappella number on the hardscrabble joys of bohemian life, swatting out the rhythm on the peeling walls. The stuff that matters, though, can be painfully elusive – such as the science-fiction epic called Superbia he’s been chipping away at for most of his adult life. Now he only has a few weeks to complete this commercially improbable opus before a workshop performance for a crowd of potential investors.
Tick, Tick…Boom! has also been crafted with a particular audience in mind: suffice it to say, if you’re the type to glaze over with bliss in the opening few bars of a Sunday in the Park with George pastiche, or to squawk with satisfaction when a long-unseen character turns out to be played by two-time Tony Award winner Judith Light, then this one is unequivocally for you. Yet the luvvie indulgence levels remain impressively low throughout, as Miranda and Levenson keep finding ways to both revel in and deconstruct the story’s inherently theatrical pleasures in uniquely cinematic ways.
As in Fosse/Verdon, the plot’s chronology is artfully scrambled, the cutting nimble and charged, the staging consistently imaginative. In one perky early number, Jonathan and his best friend Michael (a terrific Robin de Jesús) keep singing in time to the music even as the on-screen action drops into slow motion. Crucially, not a moment here feels as if it would have worked better live.
The story lends itself to small, valuable supporting turns. Alongside de Jesús, Alexandra Shipp brings critical emotional depth as Jonathan’s on-off girlfriend Susan, while there are fine performances among the Superbia ensemble players from Gizel Jiménez and the former High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens.
Two sequences are worth the price of admission alone. One is the centrepiece Sunday homage, with its Madame Tussauds array of vintage theatreland cameos. The second, a patchwork of scenes in which Superbia’s opening number gradually takes shape, perfectly captures the sense of watching a work of art emerge from the chrysalis.
If Miranda’s tendency towards showmanship can leave Tick, Tick…Boom! feeling a little insistent in places, it also means the film shares its hero’s jet-propelled determination to do his own thing – whether the world happens to be braced for it or not.
In cinemas from November 12 and on Netflix from November 19