- Nate Adams
'Tick, Tick...Boom!' review: Loving tribute to Jonathan Larson packs an emotional punch
Courtesy of Netflix
Eight months before he would premiere what would become “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda headlined a 2014 limited run of “Tick, Tick...Boom!,” a semi-autobiographical musical about the works of “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson, which at that point had been reconfigured from a messy assortment of monologues and catchy tunes into a cohesive three-person led show by playwright David Auburn. Now, decades later and at 41, six years removed from the age Jonathan Larson would pass away the night before “Rent” opened in 1996, Miranda has crafted a loving, sensational ode to him in “Tick, Tick...Boom!.” Tony award winner and Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield pays an equally mesmerizing tribute to Larson, personifying the famed writer with a keen sense of vibrant energy, solid vocals, and a humbling personality.
Written in response to his “Suburbia” failing to gain traction with producers despite positive feedback from Stephen Sondheim (played here by Bradley Whitford), “Tick, Tick...Boom!” was therapeutic for Larson who was shouldering defeat and exile from a world he’d been desperately trying to break into. Miranda bottles that energy into a meaningful portrait of Larson while showcasing parallels to his own career when, at 28, “In The Heights” took the world by storm and became a runaway critical and box office hit. Accolades Larson would only dream of achieving (he would posthumously win numerous awards for “Rent”). Miranda knows how privileged the opportunities afforded to him were and those intentions fuel “Tick, Tick...Boom!” as this is his way of giving back to Larson, the man who inspired him.
Co-written by Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and aided by frequent Miranda collaborator, Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”), “Tick, Tick...Boom!” stands among one of the better stage-to-screen depictions, a mammoth undertaking breezily intertwining Larson’s story with unique framing and transitions (two hours has never flown by so quick). Miranda, who is having a banner year thanks to “In The Heights,” “Vivo” and the forthcoming “Encanto,” seems well poised behind the director’s chair. Managing to transform a small, intimate musical into something that feels incredibly massive.
Capturing the most pivotal years in Larson’s life, “Tick, Tick...Boom!” begins in 1990; a few days removed from his 30th birthday, when he’s a struggling, broke, artist living in a run-down apartment in Lower Manhattan, barely affording monthly expenses while working part-time at the Moondance diner. We’re still three years removed from the “Rent” workshop (whether you’re a fan or not, it’s easy to spot all the subtle inspirations that would eventually make it into the musical) and he’s yearning for a break. Garfield plays “Jon” who is both the living embodiment of Larson and his own character. The screenplay is fashioned like a series of small vignettes/montages which can occasionally sour the flow of the picture, especially the rushed ending as it traverses between his daily struggles with networking, coping with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the time spent with girlfriend Susan (a terrific Alexandra Shipp) who is on the cusp of a life changing career move and he’s sweating over an unfinished song for “Suburbia.”
Most of Jon’s close pals have moved on from the glamorous dream of making it big in NYC. Best friend Micheal (Robin de Jesus - wonderful) gave up acting to become a pencil pushing ad executive for a marketing agency and Susan wants to find better opportunities as a dancer where the cost of living isn’t as expensive. You can sense the pressure mounting around Jon as “Suburbia” gears up for its debut in front of prestigious producers looking for their next hit, and though we know the eventual outcome, the blows of rejection still hurt. But Larson was nothing if not committed and Garfield, who doesn’t have a background in musical theatre per-se, has all the good-hearted sensibilities necessary to sell the performance. Harboring a collective joy of exuberant, manic persistence that defined Jonathan, playing the character as someone who always seizes an opportunity to challenge himself; penning songs about random, inanimate objects such as sugar. Oh, and he can sing too.
Garfield brings the same amount of levity and charamisa to a slower, emotional ballad like “Why” as he does to the comedic and constantly in motion, “Therapy.” And several other songs land their marks, especially the glitzy Sondheim-homage “Sunday” which features a litany of cameos from prominent Broadway icons who won’t be revealed here. Understand it’s everything you want it to be and musical theatre nerds around the world will rejoice.
Yet it’s hard watching “Tick, Tick...Boom!” knowing that, while Larson was alluding to the clock always working against him, his time would eventually be cut short. The juxtaposition of the career he never got to have versus the one Miranda does stings because who knows the greatness festering inside his head. He left behind an incredible legacy that continues to inspire generations and “Tick, Tick...Boom!” is a heartbreaking continuation of his genius. In the film, when Larson is given the advice to “start the next one” after “Suburbia” flops, you can already see the wheels turning, because time doesn’t seize for anyone and though his life was painfully short-lived, he never stopped believing.
TICK, TICK…BOOM! debuts on Netflix Friday, November 19th