Johnathan Larson is a name I wasn’t familiar with before seeing the film. I was aware of the stylized RENT posters but never sought out the play or listened to the music. I entered blind but by the end of Tick, Tick…Boom, I felt the same sense of connection and love for this person through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adoration for the subject and Andrew Garfield’s incredible performance. A labor of love towards a person taken far too soon, with so much more left to give to the world.
With the slow ticking of a wooden clock, or a bomb clicking down to detonation, Garfield channels this hectic energy and ever-present pressure to succeed and be something in his performance. The stress of being a nobody at 30, while Stephen Sondheim was on Broadway by 27. This existential crisis lays at the heart of Tick, Tick…Boom, a man grappling with the idea of failure or stagnation. Garfield juggles this overwhelming feeling while the relationships in his life hang in the balance. Through this excruciating uncertainty pops out some of the most poignant, heartfelt songs ever put on a stage.
The screenplay is structured through the actual stage play Tick, Tick…Boom, a play written about Larsson’s failure to sell his 8-year in the making sci-fi epic Superbia, and the film expand on the songs in the play. It goes from actual stage production intercut with the subjects of the songs. It’s a revealing way to express this story and bring it to the screen and does so successfully. Mainly because Garfield is a magnetic presence in both – I was shocked with how great of a singer and dancer Garfield is and he gets the very best out of the unbelievable music of Larsson’s play and in the more traditional musical moments between the songs.
The script falls apart a bit in the more mundane character moments and some of the more musically inclined silly portions of the script. However, it’s a well-constructed script that gets at the heart and creation of Larsson’s work. All the hardships he endured and the inspirations for his music. It avoids contrivance (mostly), which is impressive for a musical and keeps the narrative grounded, never floating too far into orbit. No other actor matches the intensity of Garfield, but they all round out the story nicely.
For Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first director job since 1996, it’s impressive work and you can sense his love for Larsson as a theater pro. He also gave such a perfect vehicle for Garfield’s talents a place to spread out and sing. It’s a remarkable portrait of a person full of talent and shows the doubt that drives him to greatness. The songs from Tick, Tick…Boom written by Larsson left me speechless in amazement – a true talent and one that I could relate to in so many ways through his music and pain. Gone way too soon.