Andrew Garfield takes center stage in ‘tick, tick…Boom!’, an adaptation of ‘Rent’ author Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical
New York City, 1990: Jon (Andrew Garfield) is a soon-to-be 30 musical-theatre writer frustrated by lack of professional success. His best friend Michael (Robiyn de Jesús) has recently abandoned his own dreams of Broadway and moved onto a corporate job. His girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), wants to further her dance career with a job in Massachusetts. As an important workshop performance of Jon’s long-in-development “dystopian rock musical” approaches, he is under a deadline to write one more song, while also grappling with the existential pressures of aging and ambition.
That’s the basic plot of Tick, Tick…Boom! an autobiographical rock monologue written by Jonathan Larson about a pivotal year in his life. The film adaptation, written by Steven Levenson and directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, toggles between a staged production of TTB–which features Larson, two other actors (Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens), and a band–and the scenes from Larson’s life upon which the performers are commenting. A narrator explains that what we see is all true, “except the parts Jon made up.”
The film showcases two things: Larson’s music and Andrew Garfield. And as the character of Jon, Garfield embodies the propulsive energy of Larson’s music. He nimbly transitions between the scenes of “real life” to those “on stage” to musical numbers ranging from the spontaneous to the dreamlike. He evokes Larson’s exuberant performing style (glimpsed in archival clips played over the credits) without it ever feeling like an impersonation.
Most movies are a bit too long these days, and this one is no exception. However, when the story slows down, as Jon finds himself mired in stasis, the vibrancy of the music buoys the film along. A capable and appealing supporting cast, plus numerous Broadway luminaries in small roles and cameos, surrounds Garfield’s star turn.
A story about creative ambition versus practical realities is certainly not unique. However, what sets this one apart is the tragic irony that Larson’s time truly was running out. He would die suddenly of an aortic aneurysm at age 35, but not before writing ‘Rent‘, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical that would become his legacy. This is also familiar territory for director Miranda, who acquits himself well in his directorial debut. In his own Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton, the central character is also a man taken before his time, driven by genius and ambition.
When we hear the voice of the late Steven Sondheim in the final moments, the film reveals itself as a tribute not only to Larson, but to a lineage of theatre artists who have provided inspiration, encouragement, and mentorship for the next generation of writers and composers, from Hammerstein to Sondheim to Larson to Miranda to the countless #Hamilfans who aspire to be the future of musical theatre in America.