When Jonathan Larson’s Rent debuted on Broadway in 1996, there was one thing all audiences could agree on: It was a totally unorthodox entry into the world of musical theater. The show jeered at the very notion of conventional storytelling. Its musical numbers were scrappy and loose. It embraced awkward pauses and performances. Most significantly, it unabashedly presented those affected by the AIDS epidemic with optimism and humanity in a time when vilification was far more common. And it was utterly beloved.
Rent, like its creator, was a success precisely because it defied normalcy. This dissent was hardly surprising: From his eight-years-in-the-making Nineteen Eighty-Four-inspired sci-fi musical Superbia to an affinity for improvising ditties about sugar, Larson was anything but predictable. It’s only fair, then, that his biopic, tick, tick… BOOM! follows the same design.
Perhaps the person best suited to tell Larson’s story is Broadway’s own Lin-Manuel Miranda. Creator of the strange, idiosyncratic, rebellious—and yet absolutely venerated—Hamilton, Miranda knows better than anyone what it’s like to permanently rupture theatrical convention. And even though this is Miranda’s first-ever stab at directing, he knew how to do Larson a great service by confidently throwing cinematic tradition clean out the window.
tick, tick… BOOM! is based around Larson’s one-man show of the same name, which he performed in 1990. It tells the story of his life, and what it’s like to be a struggling, aspiring composer in New York City. (Spoiler alert: It’s not easy). The film is structured around the show itself, performed by a disheveled and charismatic Andrew Garfield. From there, we weave between the show and vibrant flashbacks that illustrate exactly what Jonathan is talking (well, singing) about.
Deciding to structure the film this way was a big risk. By doing so, screenwriter Steven Levenson (who also wrote episodes of Fosse/Verdon and, more recently, movie-musical Dear Evan Hansen) deviates from typical, narrative-focused material and ruptures—even sacrifices—some of its most exciting emotional beats. When Jonathan and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) get in a fight that is the culmination of tension that’s been bubbling under the surface for an hour, for example, we continually cut back to a campy musical number. At two different points when Jonathan is experiencing severe writer’s block, the feeling of oppressive frustration is suspended by a musical number. And then the film ends with a jarringly anticlimactic voiceover.
But these structural choices never undermine the emotional fortitude of the film. In fact, they have quite the opposite effect. The interruptions instead allow the film to ebb and flow—to bubble and then break, to ripple with the discomfort and awkwardness of real life. And this so-called “real life” is a cornerstone of tick, tick… BOOM!. After a live reading of Superbia, Jonathan’s agent Rosa (Judith Light) hits him with a word of advice: She tells him to stick to what he knows, which is the lesson that ultimately leads him to Rent.
Indeed, Jonathan Larson’s magnum opus was successful largely because it is steeped so profoundly in real life. Rent is a show about ordinary people struggling in New York, and Larson wasn’t afraid to depict subjects that were considered taboo in order to commit to that realism: Drug addiction, suicide, exotic dancing. He also didn’t shy away from showing the mundanity of real life. Miranda does justice to Larson’s life by mimicking that sensibility, particularly through the film’s performances. The talented Larson’s magnetic force was easily seen in his one-man show. Admittedly, Garfield probably couldn’t win The Voice (well, unless I was a judge), but what he lacks in technical skill, he makes up for in charisma. From the flitting, kinetic energy he brings to his musical numbers to the surprising softness and watchfulness in every expression, this is the actor’s best performance since he smashed Mark Zuckerberg’s computer in The Social Network.
Not only is he charismatic, but tick, tick… BOOM!’s Jonathan is beleaguered, weathered, with unkempt clothing and frayed hair. Garfield portrays this perpetual state of frazzle with an undeniable air of empathy. When Rosa reminds him of the life-or-death stakes of performing his show at a workshop, for example, his frantic speechlessness is something we can all relate to. Later, when Jonathan gets bad news on the phone, his fixed expression conveys shock, confusion, anger and heartbreak, all in one. And it isn’t just the performance that sells this—in moments when Jonathan feels lost, he is shot from above, small and vulnerable. Similarly, in moments of triumph, he is shot in close-up, as if, at that moment, he is the center of the world. Robin de Jesús, who plays Jonathan’s best friend, Michael, also stuns as he navigates the life of a struggling artist with much less intensity than Garfield. His performance breathes a pleasantly surprising air of subtlety into the role.
And so we’ve got tick, tick… BOOM!, a film jam-packed with melancholy, powerhouse performances, and told with a somber, realistic storytelling structure that is at first jarring to the senses, but ultimately pays off. But I would be remiss to let you go without noting that this movie is also ridiculously fun. In a majority of the numbers, the camera whips around like an excited character and pans out to reveal its jubilant ensemble. Characters dance with electric energy, and I’m happy to report that Garfield has some moves. The joy of these musical ellipses is infectious, and that only makes it more tragic when real life comes crashing down.
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writer: Steven Levenson
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Robin de Jesús, Alexandra Shipp, Joshua Henry, Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens
Release Date: November 12, 2021 (theaters); November 19, 2021 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.