Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut, tick, tick…BOOM!, honors the work of the late Rent creator and composer Jonathan Larson.
I’m going to be completely honest. I went into this film without really being familiar with Jonathan Larson’s (Andrew Garfield) work. Well, aside from the famous song from Rent. However, tick, tick…BOOM! is a project that didn’t know anything about in terms of music or stage play. But anyway, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the film on Thursday afternoon. This film is not about Rent even though the hit musical is always lurking just beneath the surface. No, this one is an adaptation of the autobiographical musical written by Larson. Larson would also never see Rent in the theater, dying the night before the first preview of an aortic aneurysm. His work would go onto inspire many, including this film’s director, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Larson works as a waiter at the Moondance Diner while writing and workshopping a musical, Suburbia. Pressure is facing him from every corner as he gets closer to the first presentation. If it goes well, Suburbia certainly has a future on Broadway. Otherwise, it’s back to square one. There’s pressure from his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp). Pressure from best friend Michael, an actor who also gave up on his dreams during the AIDS crisis. And of course, the pressure is on to add one more song and finish the musical. Singers in the stage show include Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) and Roger (Joshua Henry). Other major players in the film include Larson’s agent Rosa Stevens (Judith Light) and the legendary Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford).
With his performance as the late Jonathan Larson, Andrew Garfield skyrockets to the top tier of Oscar contenders. He trained for a year before they started filming. Garfield never goes too far in terms of his performance. He hits just the right mark as an artist running out of time.
I want to say this about Bradley Whitford. The West Wing alumnus really transforms himself for the role and disappears into Sondheim. He’s not on screen much but he makes the best of the performance when he does. There are so many standout performances in the film. Vanessa Hudgens is a standout as Jon’s musical muse. She broke through in Disney’s High School Musical films and later appeared in the underappreciated Bandslam.
There are a number of songs in the film but you ask me, the diner plays home to the best set piece. I cannot speak to the specifics of the scene because Netflix doesn’t want us to. However, I think I can say that the way it’s produced is what makes it a stand-out scene. The real diner closed down in 2007 so they recreated it at the Steiner Studios. The cinematography, set design, and editing of said scene is very impressive. If you ask me, it’s right up there with “96,000” as far as musicals go in 2021.
Behind the camera, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his directorial debut. He’s been having quite the year with a number of films including In the Heights, Vivo, and the upcoming Encanto. For tick, tick…BOOM!, Miranda re-teams with In the Heights cinematographer Alice Brooks. Brooks uses a Panavision DXL camera to give the film a 90s vibe.
Miranda makes sense as the film’s director because this story is one he is familiar with. For one, he performed as Jon in a 2001 limited run. Two, it’s all about making what you know. You can’t go wrong with the creator of both In the Heights and Hamilton! There are scenes/songs in the film that play better on screen than they probably do on the stage. As a filmmaker, he aims to shoot in as many actual locations as possible. Larson’s apartment at 508 Greenwich Street was too small for filming but they did as much as they could on location after remaking the facade and storefront. In terms of set design, friends loaned the production authentic items from the apartment when available. Otherwise, they created replicas.
Another important location in the film is the New York Theatre Workshop. While they could easily recreate the venue on a soundstage, they use the real place. Honestly, the film works even better by playing to authenticity with the actual venue. Because of the pandemic, the venue wasn’t being used to credit to the filmmakers for giving back to the theater community when Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters were closed.
If you’re able to take in the film during the theatrical run, the picture and sound is glorious. Otherwise, I completely understand why you wish to wait for watching at home. Personally, I enjoyed a private screening in the theater and soaked it all in.
Jonathan Larson might have died prematurely but tick, tick…BOOM! should inspire audiences to never give up on their dreams even if the odds seem tough.
DIRECTOR: Lin-Manuel Miranda
SCREENWRITER: Steven Levenson
CAST: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, MJ Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter, with Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens
Netflix releases tick, tick…BOOM! in theaters on November 12 and streaming on November 19, 2021.
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.