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‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ Overindulges in Hero Worship

Andrew Garfield delivers one of the best performances of his career in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s otherwise disappointing feature directorial debut.
Tick Tick Boom True Story
By  · Published on November 18th, 2021

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his feature directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom!, a biographical musical drama based on the life and work of Jonathan Larson. In one of the best performances of his career, Andrew Garfield delivers a compelling portrayal of the struggling artist that succeeds, at times, in masking the hero worship that underpins the story. When that adulation bubbles above the surface, however, the movie gets in the way of itself.

Tick, Tick… Boom! borrows its title from the stage musical of the same name, which itself is based on a one-man show by Larson from the early 1990s. Both are inspired by real events pertaining to his efforts to make it on Broadway. The musical follows a protagonist named “Jonathan,” who begins to hear a ticking noise in his head as he nears his 30th birthday. And as he grows older, given his lack of success as a composer, he begins to question everything in his life.

The fluidity with which Miranda navigates the narrative complexity of Steven Levenson‘s script is impressive. Rather than just adapt the musical for the screen, the movie of Tick, Tick… Boom! begins with Garfield as Jonathan Larson putting on the stage version, and then it dips back and forth between that show and scenes from his real life.

Much of Larson’s life story, as depicted here, is cliché: he can’t catch a break, can barely pay his bills, works at a restaurant to survive, and worries that if he does not have his Broadway debut in his late twenties, like his hero Stephen Sondheim, he will never make it. Larson drinks, he sings with his friends, and he relishes a bohemian lifestyle. It’s all fun until reality hits.

But despite the familiarity of the biographical narrative, Garfield makes it feel fresh and honest. His Larson wants to make it so bad that he becomes irrational, frustrated, delusional, and, of course, only more passionate, optimistic, and at times, conceited. His chief problem is that he doesn’t live in a meritocracy. Everyone agrees he’s talented and agrees he should continue writing and scoring. Even Sondheim, played in the movie by Bradley Whitford, says he has potential.

Larson just hasn’t figured out how to use that potential in a way that will attract and satisfy the financiers of Broadway. Tick, Tick… Boom! the movie tells the story of his first big opportunity. After years of writing with nothing to show for it, a theatre group agrees to stage a workshop of his dystopian rock opera, Superbia. He hopes that after the staging, a check will make its way to his agent’s desk to finance a production of the show. But before that can happen, he has to actually finish it.

As he strains to complete Superbia, Larson begins to push away the ones he loves most: his partner, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), and his lifelong best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesús). Susan is a dancer whose own career and ambitions were derailed after an injury. She considers leaving New York and taking a job at a dance academy in the Berkshires. Her dreams will be put on hold, but she’ll have a chance to rehabilitate and have a more stable life and source of income. Similarly, Michael, a failed actor, leaves his dream behind and takes a job at an advertising agency.

Susan and Michael are Larson’s biggest champions, and they keep him grounded. They want him to keep going, but they realize at some point that he may need to make concessions in order to actually live. The main source of conflict comes when Larson does not respect their decisions to put their own dreams on hold — or even abandon them altogether. And he ends up pushing them away.

In one particularly heated exchange, Michael, who is gay, essentially tells Larson to check his privilege. It’s a lot easier for Larson, a straight, white man, to exist in the world than it is for Michael, whose sexuality is criminalized and who watches as his friends die from HIV/AIDS on a daily basis. So yes, Michael says, sometimes selling out is worth having just a little comfort in life.

We are left to wonder: is the struggle for art actually worth it? It’s a fair question, one that the movie raises in a captivating way but fails to actually probe. Rather than consider the decisions Michael and Susan make in their lives, or what they think of Larson’s, the plot moves on. We just get more of Larson grappling with his own genius.

Jonathan Larson is best remembered as the creator of Rent, a musical centering on a group of artists in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Larson died at the age of 35, the day before the first preview of that musical. That he never got to see his dream become a reality looms over this movie. Miranda doesn’t cover the creation or positive reception of Rent. His Tick, Tick… Boom! functions as an origin story, a tale of an artist striving to make it, before starting what would be his masterpiece.

While that’s all fine and good, the movie feels, at times, too much like a love letter. Miranda’s admiration for Larson could not be clearer, and the project is undoubtedly his attempt to give the man his just due. But rather than lean into the complexities of Larson, and, for example, probe what it means to have a straight man who did not have HIV or AIDS write one of the most famous works of art about the epidemic, Tick, Tick… Boom! indulges in its idolatry.

Shipp and de Jesús each deliver engaging performances that beg for more screen time that never comes. The same is true for the minor roles played by Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens. The movie makes so clear the ways Larson drew inspiration from his community, yet rather than give voice to them, the filmmakers instead focus on the individual figure.

Naturally, so much of Tick, Tick… Boom! has to do with time. Larson thinks about his own mortality, rushes to finish his musical, and watches as the lives of his friends are cut short by HIV/AIDS. There’s a manic quality to the screen version that comes through in its form. A hand-held camera chases the characters around as they sing, act, dance, and party. It’s a fitting choice for a movie that so wants its audience to reflect on the fragility of life. Yet the speed at which Miranda navigates the events of Larson’s life leaves little room for contemplation.

Tick, Tick… Boom! does a good job of drawing us into the narrative, but once we’re there, it isn’t sure what to do with us. The characters are the best part, yet just when we’re getting to actually know them, the movie shifts to another song or scene. There is little opportunity to pause and reflect, to just sit with these people and have more time.

If you’re looking for a movie that entertains and is sometimes funny and moving, then it will satisfy. If you’re looking for something more, you’ll be disappointed.

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.