tick, tick… Boom! (Review): One of My New All-time Favourite Musicals

2021 was a great year for musicals! tick, tick… BOOM! was my second-favorite of them. It also happens to be a great biopic. Read on for more of my thoughts.

Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) is a talented young New Yorker, struggling to find success as a writer of musical theater. He dedicated his 20’s to composing a musical which may never be produced. The stress of an upcoming workshop which may decide the musical’s fate causes Larson to have a crisis of faith before his 30th birthday.

He wonders if he’ll ever find success. Has he wasted his youth on foolish dreams? Maybe he should sell out like his best friend and get a “real” job? Then there’s his girlfriend– a woman whom he loves, but perhaps not so much as his artistry. Larson stands to lose his love, his job, and his sense of self-worth in the pursuit of one performance. Start the clock. Tick, tick, tick…

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp in a romantic moment of tick, tick… BOOM! Photo Credit: Macall Polay/NETFLIX ©2021

So, this movie has strange origins… I had to perform research to understand what it’s REALLY about. Basically: Jonathan Larson wrote a stage show about himself called tick, tick… BOOM!– which wasn’t fully true- and that story was crafted into this movie using a combo of tick, tick… BOOM!‘s plot, true events not found in the stage musical, and other artistic works by Larson. Still following?

Somehow the film manages to be joyful yet sombre in equal measure. We’re warned up front that there’s impending misfortune for Larson. So you immediately put his story in perspective. Miranda could have mused for two hours about fate’s cruelty but chose instead to celebrate life and the creative spirit.

tick, tick… BOOM! is about passion, and love, and dedication. Nobody said the road to success was painless. And we watch Larson hope beyond reason that his work will pay off. Not everyone has his talent but, like Larson, many of us know deep down what we’re meant for. We need to work and believe as hard as he did so we may live up to that potential. ‘Cause it won’t ever happen if we don’t try. Determination in the face of bad odds is arguably more inspiring than success. tick, tick… BOOM! left me resolved to pursue my own life’s passions. And I hope you’ll find it similarly affecting.

The way Larson’s life experiences bled into his creative work was a well-handled plot element. Sometimes he’d be roused by random words he saw, or his friends, or the places he’d go. And all these little interactions with the world built in his mind till they coalesced into something. Biopics tend to be more intrusive and obvious with this formula. “Hey! Look at how they wrote their famous song! And we’ll make a montage of it.” tick, tick… BOOM! kept things subtle, and accurately adapted the randomness of creative thinking.

tick, tick… BOOM! is a great directorial debut for Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film maintained a steady pace and never grew boring. And Miranda shot the music scenes in such a way as to highlight his performers. The film-making never felt too showy. Cool stuff happened on screen and Miranda simply let us see it the best way he knew how. I couldn’t have asked much more of him.

Beyond that: he incorporates tonnes of– well, I guess you could call them “easter eggs” throughout the film. Lin-Manuel Miranda is clearly passionate about musical theatre (as you’d assume he would be, with his track record)! Most of the references are beyond me, but bigger fans of musical theatre than I am are sure to appreciate TTB on another level.

To admit my ignorance: I didn’t even know this was a true story till just before the credits rolled. And yeah– I know the film TOLD us this was a true story up front but for some reason I didn’t believe it… Weird, I know. ‘Twas just something about the way it was presented made me figure “this is one of those ‘fake true stories.’” In any case– TTB felt even cooler once it sunk in that a real guy did these things…

Garfield and Robin de Jesús sharing a scene in tick, tick… BOOM!

Andrew Garfield deserves any and all accolades he gets from this film! I hesitate to say he carried the movie on his back (because it was solid all around) but I can’t imagine anyone else doing so perfect a job in his role. He maintained an infectious energy throughout. And I would recommend the film if only to see his performance. The guy can sing too! I’ve enjoyed Garfield’s work in the past but tick, tick… BOOM! has officially turned me into a fan.

It’s cool how Jonathan Larson is presented as a flawed human being despite his immense talents: He fanboys over legends of the industry, his agent rarely calls him back, and his stubbornness occasionally offends his friends. The character was especially relatable to me. It won’t be a stretch if my life is similar to Larson’s 5 years from now (when I’m 29)… And I’ll bet many others would feel similarly.

Garfield is this film’s undisputed MVP but Vanessa Hudgens also stood out. She has a pleasant screen presence. The fact that I’m singling her out may be surprising considering how little she has to do with the story. Her role was largely relegated to the “stage show” frame tale, where she featured in most of the songs. But her performance in those (both vocally and acting-wise) was memorable enough for a mention.

Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens being delightful during a duet.

Robin de Jesús made a solid showing as Larson’s best friend, Michael. He had an easy chemistry with Garfield. I easily bought into their lifelong friendship (and loved it). Michael is how tick, tick… BOOM! explores the more “realistic” side of artistry. He’s that guy who gives up his creative ambitions for a stable, well-paying job. But, for a nice change of pace, this choice DOESN’T make him miserable.

The romantic plotline with Larson’s girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) was believably rendered. She wants to leave New York to further her career, and she’d like Larson to leave with her, but he’s unsure whether to go. His indecision puts strain on their relationship. She and Larson seemed sweet together. I don’t have much to comment about this storyline other than Shipp performed well and it played nicely.

Onto some critiques now: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s choice to frame the story through the stage show was a good one, though it confused me for most of the film. I had no idea what the show was supposed to be. At first I wondered if the show occurred in Larson’s mind to make sense of his “real” world. But, after reading up on the movie, it’s apparently the other way around: Larson imagines the film while playing his show on stage. In any case, the concept made enough sense by the end. And it didn’t detract from the movie.

I also would have liked to see more about the AIDS epidemic. Many of Larson’s closest friends have died, are dying, or might die of AIDS. It’s obviously an issue important to him. But the film doesn’t make time to flesh out this crisis beyond a few quick mentions. I didn’t need for it to take up the whole film or anything. I just wanted more than a surface-level exploration of how AIDS affected Jonathan’s friends (and how that, in turn, affected his life).

Suffice it to say this film left an impression on me! Lin-Manuel Miranda crafted a moving “biopic” for Jonathan Larson which tugged at my heartstrings. Beyond that– I strongly related to Larson’s artistic struggles. This story gave me the motivation to continue my own musical (which I haven’t looked at in a few years). tick, tick… Boom! simultaneously gives me hope for my creative future, and helps temper my expectations. And one final thought– the music was catchy too!

tick, tick… BOOM! is a Must See (unless you hate musicals- but then why are you reading this?)

What are your recommendations for other Andrew Garfield films I should watch? What did you think of tick, tick… BOOM! ? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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