Biography and hagiography are two sides of the same coin; when the subject is the prolific musician behind a beloved musical who died on the day of its first preview, these sides become uneasy bedfellows. tick, tick…BOOM! (terribly named for search engines and its Netflix debut) tells the story of Jonathan Larson, the composer and lyricist of Rent, in the years of his less successful musical works. Larson died of an aortic aneurysm as Rent went into Off-Broadway previews, but he had been performing a semi-autobiographical one-man show during the last five years of his life. This was posthumously reworked into a stage show for three people, and Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his screen directorial debut fleshing it out into a movie musical extravaganza.
The show’s personal narration interspersed with songs translates vibrantly to the screen; here, the cuts flash between Larson (Andrew Garfield) in a black box theatre performing his life with two bandmates while he continues to live it on the outside. Scenes from life burst into larger-than-life musical numbers, art arising from mundanity in a way that mirrors Larson’s future masterpiece (a ‘write what you know’ comment from his agent feels prescient, and so knowing it becomes fun). Cameos from New York’s current theatre scene abound and the main cast is vocally and physically captivating as the walls of reality dissolve.
Garfield is exuberant, with the voice and physicality to bring Larson’s songs, overflowing creative drive, and frustrations about art under capitalism to life. However, he faces the same problem as Ben Platt and the cast of the 2005 film adaptation of Rent: he is noticeably, distractingly older than one fearing his thirtieth birthday. Perhaps a big name was needed for the cast, and his performance itself is near faultless, but his lines about running out of time may have hit differently when spoken from the well of real, foolish, and (unknowingly doomed) youth.
Miranda’s direction is unshowy, working its bold cuts to the lyrics without drawing attention to itself. His lively yet understated work feels in service to the story and music but does nothing to elevate or obscure it. It is a confident debut, but not one that establishes a voice to watch for in future.
Technically, the film is less than polished. There has been criticism of the lighting of its Black cast members, and some dialogue elicits eye rolls (‘That was freaking amazing!’ cheers a yuppie attending one of Larson’s ‘Bohemian’ house parties, and Larson’s own disdain at childhood friend Michael’s move to advertising feels overblown – making art, while vital for the soul, is necessarily curing cancer). Additionally, the tension between Larson’s ex-dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is aware of the unequal socioeconomic demands artists face and Larson’s own blindness to anything but his own creative destiny; however, this awareness does not fully acknowledge Susan’s artistry and independent, equal struggles.
Perhaps these blind spots reflect the rush of Larson’s own creative drive, but more care in the production could have made tick, tick…BOOM! a genuinely memorable and moving tribute.
tick, tick…BOOM! is available to stream on Netflix
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie