Tick, Tick… Boom! – Review

“Strongest when it gives us enough distance from the protagonist’s mind to plunge into the details of his frenzied perspective, and weakest when it’s too tethered to each of his assumptions to really think beyond the immediate present.”

by Ken Bakely

Watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick… Boom! can be a bafflingly tiring experience at times; for all the moments that the movie can soar, with the natural exuberance of its story and the defiant commitment of Andrew Garfield’s performance in the lead role, much of the film can just fall flat, unable to bridge the gap between what we’re assumed to believe about its setting and its subject matter, and what we’re actually seeing. Set in New York City in 1990, the film is an adaptation of (and elaboration on) the posthumously debuted musical of the same by Jonathan Larson, who wrote it as an autobiographical reflection of his life as an aspiring composer of musical theater. Played here by Andrew Garfield, he is on the precipice of his thirtieth birthday, and finds that fact simply mortifying: he’s staggering towards a workshop for his first show, which he’s worked on for eight years, and will remind anyone who’ll listen that he’s already three years older than Stephen Sondheim was when West Side Story premiered. He’s single-minded toward his pursuit, subsisting only on income from waiting tables, and he refuses to accept anything less than his idealized version of authenticity, which weighs on those around him – particularly his friend, Michael (Robin de Jesús), who did in fact recalibrate his life for security, and his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), who is considering leaving the city to do likewise. In short, he clutches aspiration as an identity, to the exclusion of all else.

The tragic irony of Jonathan Larson is that his experiences seemed to justify this mindset. His otherwise absurd belief that turning thirty represents some cataclysmic turning point foreshadowed his death from an aortic aneurysm at 35. His obsessive workflow would seem vindicated in that his death occurred mere hours before his first finished musical, Rent, would premiere, become a smash hit, and enshrine his short life in Broadway lore. In that sense, Tick, Tick… Boom!, as a text, seems to serve as a way to externalize those internal motivations which may have proven so impenetrable or off-putting to others. The similarities in tone, approach, and characterization to Rent are pretty striking, but, as someone with admittedly ambivalent opinions on that show, these parallels only serve to emphasize my reservations about this work. The film is reluctant to interrogate Jonathan as a character – it’s a story about a world stuffed entirely into his head, and like Rent, it seems more than a little myopic. We’re not terribly surprised to see his behavior slowly drive people away – and to the credit of Steven Levenson’s script, it certainly doesn’t let his assumptions go completely unchallenged; this isn’t merely a story exotling artistic passion over all. But it might say something about the movie’s bigger problems that it’s not sure what to do once it does provide that counterweight: it’s made this Jonathan so fixated and singular that it’s not sure what to turn him into.

In other words, Tick, Tick… Boom! wants to talk about Jonathan Larson without ever having to talk about Jonathan Larson. Though Garfield is able to navigate the volatile parade of emotions here, and he leads a roundly talented cast (from key supporting players to one musical number which features a bevy of Broadway stars in cameos), the film is still fundamentally underexplored in ways that Miranda can’t really rectify as a director. For a movie like this to truly connect, it has to feel as persistent, bold, and aspirational as its lead character. It does so in fits and starts, from big gestures (like the propulsive delivery of the musical’s opening number, “30/90”) to the smaller touches (a well-attuned casting choice, such as Bradley Whitford’s humorously mannered appearance as none other than Sondheim himself). 

Much like its conception of Jonathan Larson, the movie is perhaps most defined by how it bursts at the seams with how much it wants to say. There are certainly times when it comes close, with pieces of some messy pastiche on creativity and personal devotion coming through. But as Tick, Tick… Boom! looks for a jumping-off point – some place to conclude its take on this story – it feels less like it’s winding up and more like it’s just stopping. There could have been a way for this to underline the abrupt tragedy of Larson’s sudden death – a life that flickers out just on the cusp of long-awaited greatness – but by then, there’s just not enough space left. It’s a movie strongest when it gives us enough distance from the protagonist’s mind to plunge into the details of his frenzied perspective, and weakest when it’s too tethered to each of his assumptions to really think beyond the immediate present.