By Ben Hiett
“Am I cut out to spend my time this way?”
So asks Jonathon Larson, the real-life Broadway composer and playwright who is the focus of this film. Directed by Broadway extraordinaire Lin-Manuel Miranda with a screenplay penned by “Dear Evan Hansen” writer Steven Levenson, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is an adaptation of a solo rock opera originally composed and performed by Larson himself. Written before his most famous musical “Rent,” the show tells the story of Larson’s first foray into musical theater as he tries to get his first musical, eight years in the making, onto the Broadway stage.
One could say, then, that this movie is a musical adaptation of a musical about writing a musical. Though that might sound overly complicated, the film never feels that way, thanks to Levenson’s screenwriting. Wisely, he decides to use the solo rock opera as a storytelling device, repeatedly cutting back to Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) telling his life story as we watch it play out in real-time. However, what truly unifies this cinematic collage of musical numbers and character moments is Garfield’s electrifying performance.
In my opinion, this is his best acting to date. He perfectly embodies the chaotic energy, neurotic enthusiasm and subversive playfulness that Larson brought to the songs he wrote, songs Garfield sings with both technical skill and genuine passion. He melts into the role, so much so that I felt like I was watching the real-life Larson rather than a familiar actor pretending to be him. Put simply, his performance is personal, powerful and, by itself, makes this movie worth watching.
Andrew Garfield shines as Jonathan Larson, the scatter-brained musical genius behind the musical “Rent.”
I was equally surprised by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work as the director. Though this is his directorial debut, the film feels as though it were helmed by a seasoned filmmaker, with Miranda using subtle camera tricks and snappy transitions to keep the story flowing. Moreover, the way he plays with stylistic trademarks of different musical genres makes each musical number stand out: “Sunday,” a song about the chaotic brunch hour at a local diner, is framed as a sweeping Broadway ballad, while “Play Game,” a satirical rap song about the entertainment industry’s artistic bankruptcy, is stylized to look like a hip-hop music video straight out of the ‘90s. With fresh artistic choices like these, Miranda brings new life that the musical movie genre sorely needs.
Direction aside, much of the impact of the musical numbers lies in the raw emotion and lyrical witticism that Larson poured into writing them. In many ways, the songs feel like they were written specifically for someone of my musical taste, a fusion of the chaotic angst and clever wordplay of punk rock and the soaring emotions and thespian sensibilities of musical theater. The film gives us an honest picture of Larson’s turmoil as he wrestles to translate his scatter-brained creativity into something both artistic and accessible, giving us a greater appreciation for the products of his creative struggle.
No musical can effectively tell its story without a talented ensemble cast, and “Tick, Tick…Boom!” doesn’t lack in that department. Most prominent are Jonathon’s two closest confidants, his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and his lifelong best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), who both play their roles and sing their songs with effortless mastery.
In his directorial debut, Broadway’s own Lin-Manuel Miranda (left) brings new life to the musical movie genre.
Even more impressive, however, is the sheer amount of cameos by Broadway alumni both young and old, including “Hamilton” original cast members Joshua Henry, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Philipia Soo. Most of these cameos occur in the “Sunday” sequence, and their presence brings an even stronger sense of Broadway spectacle to the musical number.
However, what stuck with me the most was how all those elements came together to tell a story about making the most of the time we have on earth. Even the film’s title refers to Larson’s ever-present awareness of time passing; he’s about to turn thirty and feels that he doesn’t have anything to show for the life he’s lived. At one point, he openly laments “Nobody’s doing enough. I’m not doing enough. There’s not enough time, or maybe I’m just wasting my time…and the time keeps ticking.”
Serving as a stark reminder of the brevity and fragility of life is the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which impacts the lives of many of Larson’s friends. Through his eyes, we see both the tragic consequences of the disease as well as the culture of shame and the stigma surrounding the epidemic that minimizes the very real suffering of its victims. As people in their late twenties die on the daily, Larson feels an even greater sense of urgency to make his mark as his birthday approaches.
Speaking of stigma, another issue the film addresses is homosexuality, both the subculture as well as the social stigma surrounding it. Michael, Larson’s best friend, is openly gay, and he speaks of the challenges he faced because of his sexuality. In light of audiences’ differing convictions, the film makes the wise choice (for the most part) of addressing the issue within the personal context of Jonathon and Michael’s friendship.
Jonathan and Michael’s friendship serves as the emotional anchor of the film’s story.
He and Michael have been best friends since childhood. When we watch Michael tell Jonathon about the struggles he faces, the film isn’t telling us to support Michael’s lifestyle; it’s simply asking us to empathize with the real mistreatment and suffering he experienced at the hands of others and of life. Along with Larson, we feel for Michael even if we don’t condone his lifestyle.
Regardless, Larson’s anxiety over the passing of time is an experience I’m guessing many people in early adulthood (me included) will relate to. For Larson, it all comes back to a question Michael asks him early on in the film: “Are you letting yourself be led by fear or by love?” It’s a question Jonathon ends up incorporating into the musical’s final song, in which he sings, “Fear or love? Baby, don’t say the answer. Actions speak louder than words.”
It is in this sentiment that the true genius of “Tick, Tick…Boom” lies: the film doesn’t simply tell us about the electric energy or tumultuous journey of Jonathon Larson’s life. Instead, it chooses to show us the life he lived through the musical medium that he so adored. Thanks to the combination of stellar (and often unexpected) talents, “Tick, Tick…Boom” adds up to be a masterful, original and compelling musical that celebrates the value of our lives, brief though they may be.
“Tick, Tick…Boom!” is now streaming on Netflix.
Ben Hiett is an Advanced Biblical & Ministry Studies graduate student and the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterward and hanging with the boys.