‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ Review: A Love-Letter to the Creative Struggle

Lin-Manuel Miranda really said “I am going to make 2021 the year of the stage musical adaptation.”

“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is based off the semi-biographical stage play of the same name by Jonathan Larson. The film stars Andrew Garfield as Larson, a 29-year-old aspiring playwright, and his quest to get the musical that he has been working on for six years bought. Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light, Bradley Whitford, and Vanessa Hudgens also star, while Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his directorial debut.

Since being snubbed for an Oscar nomination for his work in 2010’s “The Social Network,” Andrew Garfield has quietly been one of the most consistent talents in Hollywood. In the mainstream he is known for his role as Spider-Man, but he has also been great in the likes of smaller films like “99 Homes,” “Silence,” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” the last of which did earn him an Oscar nod. He also won a Tony for his on-stage role in “Angels in America,” a performance that got him noticed by Miranda and picked to star in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” And Garfield steps up to the occasion, giving probably his second-best career performance in a pretty energetic and toe-tapping film.

Playing Jonathan Larson, a flamboyant and over-stressed diner employee, Garfield captures the anxious nature of a member of the 1990s New York City theater scene. Struggling to come to grips with the fact he is about to turn 30 and has nothing to show for it, Larson has to balance marketing his script, his floundering relationship (with a sweet if not somewhat underused Alexandra Shipp), and his minimum wage job, as well as how all this affects his friendships. Garfield gets to display a wide array of emotions, from sad and gleeful to excited and crushed, and he is impossible to take your eyes off of. He commands the screen and is a tornado of charisma, and will hopefully receive awards talk for his work.

Ever since “Hamilton,” and especially since its digital release last July and his appearance in “Mary Poppins Returns,” many people have criticized Lin-Manuel Miranda’s abilities as a singer and actor, at least when compared to his co-stars. Whatever his talents there may (or may not) be, I was really impressed by his direction here. Miranda keeps things moving at a snappy pace (save for a slight lull in the second act) and installs some flair into the musical numbers. There are a few questionable moments (like a character slowly dropping a pile of papers for dramatic effect while starring directly at the audience), but for the most part this is a very solid debut from Miranda, and shows that maybe his talents are best suited for being behind the camera instead of in front.

Sometimes stage adaptations feel like they are plays themselves (like “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and other times they feel like a natural film in its own right (like Miranda’s “In the Heights” earlier this year). I don’t have a personal preference; I think the likes of “Fences” feeling like it only takes place in two squared-off locations is a strength, while something like “Cats” would have benefitted from seeming like more of a big-scale world and not a play (not that anything could have saved that film). “Tick, Tick… Boom!” opts to go for the “narrative film” route and I think that it works well here. If you did not know who Larson was, the musicals he created, or that this was based on a play itself, then you could easily think it is an original story created for the silver screen.

“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is emotional at points (though not every attempt at a heartstring-tugging moment works or feels entirely earned), and features a shining performance from Andrew Garfield. It may be a bit tear-jerky or indulgent for some people’s taste but overall this is one of the better films, and certainly the best musical, of 2021.

Critics Rating: 8/10


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