Before Jonathan Larson created Rent, the 1996 show that became a Broadway smash and changed the scope of modern musical theater, there was Tick, Tick… Boom!, his semi-autobiographical musical about a young composer yearning to make something great while staring down the ticking clock of his 30th birthday.
In hindsight, that story feels extremely prescient: Larson would go on to write a Pulitzer-winning musical that enraptured theater lovers and inspired future artists. It’s also tragic, because Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35 on the day of Rent’s first public preview and never saw any of its success.
Both these layers are present in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stirring screen adaptation of Tick, Tick… Boom!, but the film smartly doesn’t dwell on his short life and instead unspools as an exuberant ode to Larson and a tribute to anyone, especially those in the arts, who might be chasing big dreams.
Andrew Garfield, showcasing some impressive musical talent in one of the most emotional performances of the year, gives a full-hearted turn as Jon, a musical theater composer — “one of the last of my species,” he jokes — who’s been spending years developing an ambitious sci-fi rock musical called Superbia while also waiting tables at a SoHo diner (the iconic Moondance, recreated here and used to thrilling effect in one cameo-laden number). He’s got an agent who won’t return his calls (a delightful Judith Light) and an occasional mentor in none other than Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford, uncannily embodying the maestro); he’s also struggling to write a key song ahead of a workshop for his show, and keenly aware of the passage of time as his milestone birthday approaches. (Sondheim, he notes, already had a Broadway musical at 27.)
While Jon remains blocked, the people closest to him are making other moves. His girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), is a dancer considering taking a teaching job outside New York City. Meanwhile, his childhood best friend and former roommate Michael (Robin de Jesùs, an absolute scene-stealer) has left the acting grind for a cushy advertising job and a fancy new apartment, which he and Jon dance through in the charming “No More,” celebrating the creature comforts a steady salary affords.
Miranda, the mastermind behind Broadway smashes Hamilton and In the Heights making his directorial film debut, knows plenty about the journey of creating musical theater, and his admiration of Larson comes through clearly. (He first saw Rent at 17 and even starred as Jon in a 2014 production of Tick, Tick… Boom!). As shaped by his direction and Steven Levenson’s script, Garfield’s Jon is brilliant but imperfect — you see all that creativity bursting out of him, but also how that drive frequently tunes out what his friends are going through — and someone the movie makes you want to root for. And the framing of the story, a staging of Tick, Tick… Boom! (with Garfield at the piano and Vanessa Hudgens and Tony nominee Joshua Henry as his fellow performers), allows Jon to tell his own story with space for musical numbers to fill the metaphorical room.
There isn’t a question that Larson will succeed in his quest for greatness (case in point: the sheer number of people who can happily recite all of Rent, note for note) — that’s not the point. Instead, Tick, Tick… Boom! is a totem for the thrills and trials of making art, with all the sacrifices and empathy it requires (the 1990 setting means the AIDS crisis also casts a shadow over those closest to Jon, and bridges into his work on the groundbreaking musical that would make him famous). It’s also a lovingly wrapped gift to Larson fans and theater lovers, begging to be opened and enjoyed. A-