Before the Academy engraves Will Smith’s Oscar, they might want to look at Andrew Garfield’s vivid portrayal of theatrical composer Jonathan Larson in TICK, TICK…BOOM! It’s a tremendous performance in what is one of the delights of the season. Everyone’s waiting with bated breath for Steven Spielberg’s take on WEST SIDE STORY to premiere too, but the musical of the season may already be in our midst. And first-time film director Lin-Manuel Miranda, of HAMILTON fame, has as much to be proud of as Garfield.
Larson, you’ll remember, was the genius behind the musical RENT. The composer never got to fully enjoy that show’s spoils though as he died on the day of its first Off-Broadway performance in 1996. But before that, he spent over a decade trying to shape a different musical, hoping to become the next Stephen Sondheim in the process. This film is about that most trying of times for the young man. Larson’s composing efforts, his struggles to make ends meet, the up and down relationship with his girlfriend…they’re all part of the story in TICK, TICK…BOOM! And even though the story here is stylized with all kinds of singing, choreography, and visual effects, the universal truths should connect with any audience, be they an average Joe or a Broadway baby.
Miranda seems to instinctively know film as well as he does the stage. His is a nervy, swirling, and twirling film musical that reminded me of Bob Fosse’s hellzapoppin’ autobiographical film ALL THAT JAZZ back in 1979. Miranda masterfully cuts back and forth from stage to locations, dialogue to lyrics, and reality to theatricality. And he’s expert at getting the best from his cast too. Alexandra Shipp is a marvel as Larson’s world-weary girlfriend Susan, and Robin de Jesus playing Michael, Larson’s sensitive and savvy best friend.
Miranda also tosses in dozens of familiar Broadway faces, especially in one big musical number in a diner where Larson interacts with dozens of cranky customers played by Broadway legends such as Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, Howard McGillin, Andre DeShields, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, and yes, the director himself, just to name a few.
Even with such star quality turns by Bradley Whitford as Sondheim, Judith Light as Larson’s agent, and Vanessa Hudgens’ part as an actress who helps the composer bring his struggling musical creation SUPERBIA to life, the movie never feels like a big parade of celebrities. Instead, he sticks close to Larson the artist at all times, examining the blood, sweat, and tears that go into creating.
Tragically, Larson didn’t live long enough to see the impact he made on Broadway or in this film, but you can see it for yourself as it plays on Netflix this season. Seek out TICK, TICK…BOOM! Trust me, you’ll be blown away.