After over a year of binging Netflix in my tiny East Village apartment it felt a little Alanis Morissette ironic that my first trip to a Broadway theatre since last March wasn’t to see a live theatre production, but for the New York premiere of a Netflix film, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! As it turned out, it made for a perfect return to theatreland. Miranda’s impressive feature directorial debut, adapted from the autobiographical musical by the late Rent composer and writer Jonathan Larson, is an invigorating, life-affirming, and deeply moving hymn both to musical theatre and more broadly to all creative people, as well as a celebration of Larson’s life and legacy.
Andrew Garfield plays Larson as his twenties are rapidly coming to a close. Yet to see his work produced, he’s plagued by thoughts of the early in life success of musical theatre artists such as his hero Stephen Sondheim, and can already hear the notes of Happy Birthday beginning to mockingly loom over him and time ticking away until he turns 30 in 1990, leading to one of the film’s urgent, thumping rock musical numbers 30/90, beautifully performed by with an agitated gusto by Garfield.
We meet Larson just days before a showcase performance for potential producers of his, as it turns out, prophetic futuristic musical, Superbia, where folks spend their days absorbed by watching the lives of the elite play out like a TV show on their media devices. As he stays razor focused on preparing for the event, workshopping by day and writing by night, the lights go out around him when his apartment’s power is cut off on the eve of the showcase. Not only is this bad timing—as he attempts to conjure a final song for Superbia’s female lead, to be performed by Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens in fine voice)—but it also serves as a metaphor for the way he is so consumed by his artistic pursuit that he has little time for anything else in his life.
We see him struggle to balance his work with devoting time to his relationship with his girlfriend Susan (a captivating Alexandra Shipp)—who is contemplating leaving the city behind along with her dreams of being a dancer to become a teacher in rural Massachusetts—while holding down his day job waiting tables at the Moondance Diner, and unintentionally neglecting his closest friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) when he needs him most. It’s an admirable dedication that will be relatable to many, convincingly conveyed by Garfield, and the joy that surrounds him when he does connect with the people in his life shines through in the blissfully catchy ensemble number Boho Days. The staging of the song in Larson’s apartment is typical of the film’s natural and fluid movement between dialogue and its musical numbers. Among his circle of friends, whom Larson used as inspiration for characters in his posthumous hit Rent, are his close-knit diner colleagues Carolyn (a superb Mj Rodriguez) and Freddy (a soulful Ben Levi Ross).
At the heart of the film is a touching, decades-long platonic friendship between Jon, who is straight, and Michael an amateur actor in his youth turned advertising executive, who happens to be gay. On the face of it this shouldn’t be anything remarkable in itself, but seeing this pairing in tick, tick…BOOM! it struck me how rarely I’ve seen that dynamic portrayed on screen, particularly as a central relationship, and depicted with such tenderness and love by screenwriter Steven Levenson, and in the hands of two such detailed and emotional actors as Andrew Garfield and Robin de Jesús, it becomes a thing of real beauty.
De Jesús, who made his movie debut nearly twenty years ago as a queer teen in Todd Graff’s Camp and gave a standout performance in Joe Mantello’s screen adaptation of The Boys In The Band last year, is given a role here that allows the three-time Tony-nominee a chance to bring even richer, more nuanced characterization to the screen, marking him as potent talent. There’s such warmth between the two men, but Michael is clearly distraught as a young gay man in the midst of the AIDS crisis, trying to hold down his demanding job as his friends die around him, in an era of virulent homophobia and neglect of the queer community by the government and society at large, as exemplified by an archive clip of Jesse Helms addressing the US Senate, a moment that we see directly inspire a Larson lyric.
That HIV/AIDS is troubling Larson, a concern made clear in Rent, is also present visually in tick, tick…BOOM! through brief hospital bed tableaux, and in the ACT UP posters plastered on the city streets. The crisis remains an ever-present noise in the background of movie, occasionally bubbling to the surface, most notably in two subtle, but gut-wrenchingly moving speeches delivered by de Jesús as Michael. Although Miranda consulted his sixth grade teacher, who happened to be AIDS activist Perry Halkitis, for advice about portraying the era, its depiction never feels like a history lesson, but more as in the moment, lived experience.
Much of the film’s humour comes from a delectable performance by Judith Light as Jon’s agent Rosa Stevens, who doesn’t even recognize her client when she comes to support him at his showcase, but manages to be both encouraging and realistic about what it means to be a writer in search of a break. Although she frequently calls out to her assistant Charlie, one strongly suspects that she actually works alone and that its merely an eccentric and rather theatrical strategy to help bring her telephone conversations with clients to an abrupt close, while making her sound busier than she is.
In an invitingly intimate and relatively lowkey way, Miranda and cinematographer Alice Brooks immerse us in a world that feels both authentically recognizable as 1990 Manhattan, as well as capturing the downtown creative milieu of the era, with exceptional production design by Alex DiGerlando of spaces like Jon’s cluttered apartment and the diner which feel like living, breathing places not sets, along with period exteriors like a characterfully seedy, pre-Disneyfied theatre district. On occasion the scope of the film moves deftly from minor to major key, such as the stunning sequence where a frustrated Larson goes for a late night swim and, as inspiration strikes, in a visual flourish an aerial shot shows the tiles at the bottom of the pool become a giant sheet of music.
An unforgiving environment back then, at least pre-hypergentrification there were more possibilities to scrape by paying low rent in an apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen than there are in contemporary “luxury” Manhattan that has become increasingly even more unaffordable for those pursuing creative careers. The stark contrast between a life of security, with health insurance and a guaranteed decent regular income, represented in the film by Michael’s choices, and the decision to pursue the arts with no assurance of success, as Jon does, is skillfully illustrated, as is the drive and passion, that unavoidable creative compulsion, and the euphoric, soul-enriching satisfaction our sharing ones creation that makes all the uncertainty and risk worthwhile.
The delicately intricate structure of the film, moving between Jon performing on stage, his inspirations, and his preparations for the showcase, unfurls with clarity thanks to Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum’s pacy editing that echoes the rhythms of the film’s strong musical numbers. While theatre-lovers will be delighted by a raft of familiar faces from both on and off stage, these moments are never a distraction or presented with a nod and a wink, but feel intricate to the fabric of the film, and contribute to tick, tick…BOOM! as inspiring tribute to theatre and the lives devoted to its creation.
By James Kleinmann