Spoiler warning: this review mentions scenes from the movie.
tick, tick… BOOM! is a semi-autobiographical musical about composer and playwright Jonathan Larson, played by Andrew Garfield. With a screenplay by Steven Levenson, this movie adaptation was directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, marking his directorial debut.
The week before Jon’s thirtieth birthday, he describes a constant ticking sound in his head, like he is running out of time. Jon works as a waiter at the Moondance Diner, but there are so many things he needs to do. He needs to talk to his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), he needs to visit a friend who is in the hospital with HIV-AIDS, and most importantly, he needs to finish a crucial song for the musical he has been working on for the past eight years before its first public workshop performance.
At the beginning of the movie, there is a brief introduction for the audience to contextualize Larson’s life, career, and sudden death. Larson originally performed tick, tick… BOOM! as a rock monologue in New York City (NYC) in 1990, before it was later reconfigured into a three-person musical after his death in 1996. This 2021 adaptation shifts between Jon performing the monologue in front of an audience and Jon’s point-of-view as events unfold over one crazy week. It is a creative and effective way to tell this story and a nice tribute to Larson’s original tick, tick… BOOM! performances.
The three main characters in this movie are Jon, Susan, and Jon’s long-time best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesús); all three of them give wonderful, thoughtful performances. Garfield’s performance as Jon was especially outstanding and moving. It is clear he spent a lot of time and care learning about Larson, including his motivations and mannerisms. He portrays all the feelings of frenzy, anxiety, ambition, frustration, doubt, confidence, sadness, and everything else that comes with being an artist in NYC in such a way the audience has no choice but to feel these emotions too. His vocal skills are also impressive, and one standout scene is when Garfield performed “Why” alone at the piano in the Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre.
Shipp is also great as Susan. Susan and Jon’s relationship is strained, as she has a job offer in the Berkshires, but Jon feels like he cannot leave NYC just as his career is finally gaining some traction. However, they still love and care about each other. Shipp and Garfield have a natural chemistry that makes their relationship believable as it unfolds on screen. She also does an amazing job with the song “Come to Your Senses.”
De Jesús gives an excellent performance as Michael. Michael has a lot going on in his life too, and everything seems to be going his way. He left acting for a job at an advertising company on Madison Avenue where he makes good money and has a swanky new apartment on the Upper East Side. However, Michael gets a positive HIV diagnosis. Unlike Jon, Michael is actually running out of time. De Jesús balances Michael’s conflicting emotions so well. He is happy with his life but sad about his diagnosis; he is frustrated that Jon is not acting like an adult, but he is still a supportive friend. Michael sings a variation of the song “Real Life,” which is a turning point for Michael and Jon, and De Jesús carries this song so beautifully.
In addition to these three main characters, many other Broadway stars make cameo appearances to the delight of musical theatre fans. In the “Sunday” musical sequence at the Moondance Diner, there are cameos from Andre De Shields, Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera, and many others. Theatre legend Stephen Sondheim also does a voice recording for a message that his character leaves for Jon on his answering machine, since Bradley Whitford, who plays Sondheim in the film, was unavailable. Miranda was heavily influenced by Larson’s Rent and his other works, so some of Rent’s original cast members, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Adam Pascal, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia also have cameo appearances. Miranda also plants other Rent Easter eggs throughout the film.
Miranda, the cast, and the creative team treat this movie with such love and care. Levenson and Miranda carefully researched the original production and Larson’s life, trying to stay as true to the source material as possible. They make the props, sets, and everything else as realistic and detailed as possible, from Larson’s apartment in SoHo to the pool where he regularly went swimming. The costume and makeup department also does a stellar job making Garfield look like Larson. With previously unheard songs, including “Swimming” and “Sextet,” tick, tick… BOOM! is truly a love letter to Larson, theatre, and those who make art.