As a man made into a global superstar by his musical theatre work with In the Heights and the cultural juggernaut that is Hamilton, it comes as no surprise that Lin-Manuel Miranda want to open his directorial career with a musical, but what might take you aback about Tick Tick Boom is just how much *musical* is packed into it. Here is a musical film based on a stage musical, all about writing a different stage musical, and not even the musical that its protagonist Jonathan Larson was most famous for – all performed with a ‘Theatre Kid’ energy that is by turns irresistible and insufferable.
Andrew Garfield plays Larson, who would later go on to write and compose the iconic smash-hit Rent, but is currently waiting tables at a diner and stuck in a bit of a crisis. His ambitious sci-fi musical Superbia – soon to be presented to potential Broadway-adjacent financial backers – is missing a crucial song, he’s running out of money, his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is on the verge of leaving him, and he’s about to turn 30, a year count that fills him with a deep dread. The countdown to Superbia’s debut is the crux of Tick Tick Boom, Larson’s anxiety about the play turning him in on himself and alienating those around him.
Keeping Larson on the right side of likeable proves to be Tick Tick Boom’s most pressing concern. He makes for an incredibly frustrating protagonist at points, which makes it hard to invest in the success of his play, especially when the wider concerns of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in New York – namely the ongoing AIDS crisis – rear their heads and reveal just how petty Larson’s issues can seem to his friends. Steven Levenson’s script generally gets the balance right, but does sometimes tip into annoying territory, and gives a few of the supporting characters overly short shrift. I definitely wanted a deeper look at Larson’s best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus), whose success in the corporate world is undercut by his constant terror and grief being a gay man in the midst of the AIDS crisis.
The film is on sturdier ground when it comes to musical numbers, Miranda taking Larson’s music and lyrics and bringing them to gaudy, colourful life in a way that immediately sweeps you up into this rock-opera world. Garfield proves his singing chops with some style, whether in rapid-fire showtunes or full on rock ballads, and the general elasticity that he brings to Larson makes for some strikingly original dance choreography – even if some of it is simply too eccentric for my taste.
It’s not a perfect stage-to-screen transition for Miranda – his camera can be a little erratic during some of the numbers – but you’ll find yourself grinning and tapping your toes through the music regardless. Funnily enough, Miranda has been somewhat outshone this year by his own work in the form of Jon M Chu’s joyous adaptation of In the Heights, but Tick Tick Boom is still the giddy, goofy fun that you’d expect from him, and will utterly delight any hardcore Broadway fan.