Lin Manuel-Miranda has reshaped the landscape of the movie musical over the past five years. From his breakthrough smash Broadway hit Hamilton to his songwriting on the Disney hit Moana to his personal semi-autobiographical film adaptation In the Heights, Miranda’s name has become almost synonymous with the phrase “successful hit musical” in Hollywood. His directorial debut, TICK, TICK…BOOM!, proves that Miranda is a force of nature in filmmaking as well as theater and songwriting. Not only is this one of the most impressive debut films I have ever seen, it is one of the finest musicals of the decade and one of the best movies of the year. Every scene in the film is awe-inspiring and lit by the passion of the filmmaking, and it doesn’t hurt that Andrew Garfield gives a lead performance for the ages, cementing his status as one of the most prolific actors working today.
TICK, TICK…BOOM! is an adaptation-of-sorts of the autobiographical rock monologue that famed playwright Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) performed in the early 90s. Many people know Larson for penning Rent, one of the most critically acclaimed and long-running Broadway shows in history. But before his work became nationally recognized, he was just another struggling writer in New York City trying to get important people to notice his ideas. TICK, TICK…BOOM! follows Larson in the days before his opening workshop for a science-fiction concept play he has written called Superbia. He wants this play to rocket him to Broadway superstardom, but has yet to write some of the most important songs in the musical days before the first performance. Along with this, his personal life is undergoing a permanent change as his relationships with both his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) and his best friend of many years (Robin de Jesus) are evolving.
TICK, TICK…BOOM! is a perfect film for many different audiences — first and foremost musical theater lovers. Miranda packs odes and homages to much of Broadway’s best throughout this movie in a tasteful and emotional manner that is sure to leave any theater lover in a state of disbelief. TICK, TICK…BOOM includes a number that serves as an homage to the classic Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George, and Miranda adapts this into an artistically masterful scene with direction so precise that the accomplishment is difficult to fathom. For a debut director, the fact that Miranda can pull off these massively complicated sequences full of dance, emotion, and heart is unprecedented. The film is also perfect for creators of any type of art — Larson’s play, and by proxy Miranda’s film, details the mental stress of throwing oneself into art to such an extent that it affects one’s personal relationships. Anybody who has faced a major assignment on a deadline will find themselves in this narrative as well, for Garfield’s Larson comes down to the last minute to write much of the play that could change his life.
However, the theme that makes TICK, TICK…BOOM! even better than just a good movie-musical is the way it examines the passage of time and the fragility of life. Everybody has a limited time on this Earth and perhaps the most essential question that determines how people make their decisions is that of how we spend our time. Are we living our lives to the fullest extent they can be lived or are we wasting our lives chasing a dream or a goal that will never be fulfilled? TICK, TICK…BOOM! captures the essence of this question with Larson’s story and with the stories of his friends, some of whom are facing the HIV/AIDS pandemic and are forced to confront their own mortality. Larson did not live long — he passed away the night before the first off-broadway performance of Rent due to a sudden aneurysm — but he spent his days pursuing and practicing what he loved with the people he loved. Though he never got to see the completed version of Rent, one could argue that his life was lived to the fullest potential due to the passion and joy with which he conducted himself. By the end, Miranda hits this point home to such an effective degree that it is difficult to hold back tears while thinking about Larson’s life and the lessons that could be applied to one’s own life.
However, none of this powerful material could have excelled so spectacularly without some stellar lead performances, and TICK, TICK…BOOM! contains that in abundance. Garfield breathes life into Larson as no other actor possibly could and delivers one of the best performances ever in a movie musical. Before the shooting of this film, Garfield had no vocal experience, yet he sings like a professional Broadway star during every musical number, injecting his characteristic emotional vulnerability whenever possible. A scene near the end of the film that involves Garfield singing and playing piano in Central Park is easily my favorite scene of acting all year, which makes me firmly back him as my choice to win Best Actor at the Oscars. Along with Garfield, Robin de Jesus also delivers a stunning performance as Larson’s lifelong friend Michael, sometimes even outshining Garfield with his charisma. I will be waiting on the edge of my seat for the moment that Jesus breaks out into the mainstream and becomes a bona fide star.
TICK, TICK…BOOM! left me awestruck. With each passing scene, I would doubt the movie could improve in quality, yet Miranda and Garfield kept proving me very wrong in glorious fashion. I will say that the film may not interest those who aren’t musical theater nerds or who do not appreciate the structure of a stage play translated into film, but I would also say that regardless of one’s interests, the film is at the very least worth checking out. I cannot recommend it enough, and ever since I have watched it I have had to restrain myself at social gatherings to keep myself from endlessly rerouting each conversation back to TICK, TICK…BOOM!. Maybe it’s the theater geek in me talking, but I think it will be difficult to find a more meticulously crafted, wildly entertaining and emotionally vulnerable movie this year — it is a marvel on every level.