Lin-Manuel Miranda has had a solid year in 2021 as he transitions from theater to film. First, it was with “In the Heights,” based on his stage play. Next, the upcoming “Encanto,” Disney’s 60th animated film for which he contributed musical numbers. Now, from Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, and Netflix, comes “tick, tick . . . . BOOM,” based on an aspiring and inspired Jonathan Larson.
In his directorial debut, Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson create a semi-autobiographical story of the trials and tribulations of Jonathan Larson, the playwright who eventually brought Broadway audiences “Rent,” which ultimately ran for 12 years. “tick, tick . . . . BOOM!” takes a step back into Larson’s life on the eve of his 30th birthday. Obsessed with the idea of having his first play produced, Larson hits writer’s block as he struggles to find that one last element that will assure his first play is produced.
Andrew Garfield earns every bit of the Oscar-worthy mentions for his performance as the brilliant, slightly neurotic, and damned talented Larson. While there are no direct comparisons made, Garfield’s performance matches Miles Teller’s in 2014’s “Whiplash,” someone who is so driven to be the best and to be someone on Broadway before his 30th birthday that he misses the obvious signs of unfolding drama surrounding him.
Susan, played by Alexandra Shipp, is Larson’s girlfriend who is struggling to find her way in the world, and with Larson engaged in trying to put together his first play, she feels and is ignored. Shipp is stunning in her performance. Tony Award-nominated Robin de Jesús stars as Michael, Larson’s roommate. As a struggling actor, Michael seeks other opportunities and is a lifeline into a real-world career instead of Susan. Michael is also a sign of many of Larson’s social issues, namely multiculturalism and homophobia. Set in the late 1980s, early 1990s, Miranda infuses the story with these issues along with the AIDS epidemic. Judith Light co-stars as the straight-shooting Rosa Stevens, Larson’s manager, and Bradley Whitford is Stephen Sondheim. There’s a brilliant scene where Larson gives his first performance with Whitford and Richard Kind’s Walter Bloom. The two established playwrights offer feedback and couldn’t be more contradictory and complimentary in the same scene; in someone else’s hands, it could have come off as awkwardly funny, but in reality, Miranda works the stage for what it is, and the raw feedback sets Larson on his path.
Miranda uses Larson to tell his own story through shifting productions; mind you, this is not a non-linear story, but the story mixes the unfolding on-screen drama with a cabaret-like performance where Larson and his quintet break into song and comedy, with Larson performing in front of an audience. These transitions create an intimacy in which we get to know what makes Larson tick and lead to a slow burn first act.
The story also takes advantage of the available video footage of Larson, recreating specific sequences in a 4:3 format with all the associated video noise, lending an authentic feel to the film. Alice Brooks’ cinematography, much of which was shot in Larson’s dimly-lit and dank apartment that typically dots New York City’s five boroughs goes toward building the struggling playwright’s life outside the artistry, contrasted with the sunlit practice rooms where his first play comes together and later, Michael’s life outside of their shared apartment.
Garfield is dynamic in his performance as Jonathan Larson, stylishly guided by Miranda in his directorial debut, and “tick, tick…BOOM!” lyrically leaps off the music sheet, reminding us that life shouldn’t stop in the pursuit of our dreams. We are our dreams and passions, and their objectives are worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears.
Now playing in Phoenix for the next week at Harkins Arrowhead, Camelview, Chandler Fashion, and Santan Village and streaming on Netflix on Friday, November 19th.