4 out of 5 stars

Andrew Garfield delivers a poignant and joyous portrayal of Rent creator Jonathan Larson in tick, tick… BOOM! This musical drama focuses on his autobiographical rock monologue in which Larson tells audiences of his apprehension over turning 30 and his struggles to get his first musical, Superbia, produced. The project was revised after Larson’s tragic death and instead turned into the musical Rent. Tick, tick…BOOM! blends this musical with recreations of the flashbacks described in the monologue.

First-time director and Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manual Miranda inventively blends autobiographical scenes, set inside Larson’s cramped apartment and the diner he works at, with musical sequences set in 1990s New York and on-stage montages. Unlike the spectacle of many recent musicals (In the Heights, Rocketman), tick, tick…BOOM! thrives on the subtleties of ordinary life, with scenes taking place in everyday places like bookshops. Jonathan found beauty in the mundane, and this biographic musical is an ode to his lost creativity.

In his first musical role, Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) delivers a magnetic performance that’s sure to put him in Academy Award contention. He portrays Jonathan’s quarter-life crisis with a restless performance, becoming a bundle of nervous creative energy, as his focus on becoming successful before he turns 30 puts pressure on his relationships with girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús).

It’s hard to believe this is Garfield’s first singing role because he delivers each musical piece with the confidence of an experienced performer. Accompanied by Vanessa Hudgens (who appeared in a TV production of Rent) and Tony Award-winner Joshua Henry, Garfield more than holds his own on the catchy soundtrack of upbeat pop-rock songs. The set-piece to “Sunday” is a who’s-who of musical cameos, while opening number “30/90” will immediately put a smile on your face.

As Susan puts it her opening voiceover, “everything you’re about to see is true, except for the parts Jonathan made up.” This mentality, where Jonathan’s seen through the eyes of Jonathan, means the film never fully explores the many layers to this musical genius. Although it’s transparent about his one-track mind and carelessness over his relationships, it never fully explores why Jonathan’s so extraordinarily obsessed with his looming birthday. Anyone who is, or knows, a creative will understand the perseverance and pressure of the industry.

tick tick… BOOM! also explores the feeling of mortality that many people, creative or otherwise, feel when approaching their thirties. Larson’s friends have all quit the creative world and chosen to instead take on normal jobs in marketing or education, while Jonathan famously refused to work in advertising because he didn’t agree with their ethics. Not even seeing the lush apartment blocks of his peers made him want to quit his dream of getting a musical on Broadway. Jonathan’s world feels like a ticking time bomb, with AIDS also cutting short the lives of many of his inner circle, but he never cuts his losses and bails out.

Miranda has created a loving homage to a creator who never got to enjoy the payoff to his many years workshopping musicals, while making ends meet in a diner. It’s also a personal reflection of the nebulous early-’90s in New York. tick, tick…BOOM! had a limited 2014 run with Miranda himself in the lead, about eight-months before Hamilton premiered, so it’s clear the source material is highly personal to the debuting director. One could argue that without Miranda seeing Rent on his 17th birthday—which was one of the first musicals about normal New Yorkers—there would be no In the Heights.

Jonathan Larson tragically passed away at the age of 35 on the morning of Rent’s first Off-Broadway performance. He suffered an aortic dissection believed to be caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. He never saw his Tony Awards, his Pulitzer, or the joy he gave many around the world. But tick, tick… BOOM! doesn’t dwell on the tragedy of his untimely death, but rather exploresthe journey that led him to create one of the best musicals of all time. Perhaps this is why the last 20% of the film feels a little rushed, as the gap between tick tick…BOOM! being created and Rent being crafted feels like a gaping narrative hole. If you’re not well versed in Larson and Rent, you’ll likely be searching out his story as the end credits roll, and audiences deserved a little more closure than this film ultimately delivers.

USA | 2021 | 121 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
writer: Steven Levenson (based on the musical by Jonathan Larson).
starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light & Vanessa Hudgens.