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Review: Tick, Tick...Boom! Movie Is Paradise for Theater Geeks

Lin-Manuel Miranda brings Jonathan Larson's semiautobiographical musical to the screen.

Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick...Boom!
(© Macall Polay/Netflix)

The movie-musicals we've been getting lately haven't really felt like movie-musicals. They're being made with general audiences in mind; the singing is hidden in the trailers; the dancing is shot in such a way that you can't see the performers' full bodies. Popular titles like Dear Evan Hansen and The Prom become cinematic dirges because the final products don't want to admit what they inherently are.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's feature adaptation of Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick…Boom!, in select cinemas now and on Netflix as of November 19, is the complete opposite. Here is a movie-musical that not only embraces the form but enjoys it. Loaded with theatrical in-jokes, Easter eggs, cameos, and Stephen Sondheim (as portrayed by Bradley Whitford and eventually voiced by the man himself), Tick, Tick…Boom! is made for theater geeks by a consummate lover of theater, and it's a delight from start to finish.

Andrew Garfield and Robin de Jesús in Tick, Tick...Boom!
(© Macall Polay/Netflix)

For those readers who only know Larson as the creator of Rent, here's a quick primer on Tick, Tick…Boom! It originated under the titles 30/90 or Boho Days in the early 1990s as a rock monologue Larson would perform in the wake of both turning 30 and the unsuccessful workshop of a sci-fi musical he wrote called Superbia. Fast-forward several years. Rent is an international phenomenon that Larson didn't live to see, having died from an aortic aneurysm the day previews were scheduled to begin off-Broadway. The playwright David Auburn (Proof) is hired to adapt it into a three-actor, multi-character piece with the current title, which is the iteration that has since become canonical.

This version — adapted by Dear Evan Hansen scribe Steven Levenson — takes place in two worlds. It opens in medias res, with Jonathan (Andrew Garfield) and two backup singers, Roger and Karessa (Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens, both at the top of their games), performing the original stage show at New York Theatre Workshop in 1992. As Jon monologizes, we flashback to scenes from the preceding months and explore his struggle to find his place as an artist who waits tables, alongside a best pal (Robin de Jesús), who lives in luxury after giving up acting for advertising, and a neglected girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp), who has begun teaching dance instead of performing. At the center of it all is the looming workshop for Superbia at Playwrights Horizons, for which Jonathan is still struggling to write one great song.

It says a lot about Miranda's clout as an artist and media figure that this movie, which would be niche even under the best circumstances, would not only get made at Netflix, but that Netflix would just let him run with it. Danny Burstein and Judy Kuhn as Jonathan's parents? Sure. The estimable playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman in a wig and mustache as theatrical producer Ira Weitzman? Why not? A scene at the BMI musical theater workshop where Larson's classmates are played by everyone from Jeanine Tesori to Dave Malloy? That cameo-laden moment (and another one I don't want to spoil) practically made me levitate out of my seat. Tick, Tick… is theater-geek catnip, and I was happily along for the ride the entire time.

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp in Tick, Tick...Boom!
(© Netflix)

On a technical level, Miranda's film debut is loaded with the same kind of brash self-confidence and bravado that Larson has in spades as he introduces himself to strangers as "the future of musical-theater." He knows how to build into a song and lead out of one; his cinematographer, Alice Brooks, allows us to linger on images and moments and whole people as they dance. Editors Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum give us numbers that are paced in time to the frenetic score, while slowing things down for the scene work. And it would be remiss not to mention hair stylist Mandy Lyons and makeup designer Judy Chin, whose transformative work, particularly for Garfield as Larson and Whitford as Sondheim, is completely uncanny.

The acting is heartfelt and deep all around; I was particularly taken with the pathos that de Jesús and Shipp display as two central figures in Jonathan's life who understand that their relationships with him will never be as important as his relationship with a keyboard. (Shipp, incidentally, shares the big eleven o'clock number "Come to Your Senses" with Hudgens here, and the song works even better as a duet.) And I was thoroughly delighted by Judith Light as Jonathan's agent, and Whitford, who absolutely nails Sondheim's crooked smile and blasé arrogance.

Vanessa Hudgens in in Tick, Tick...Boom!
(© Macall Polay/Netflix)

Garfield really accomplishes that feat of making us feel sympathy for a guy who's got his eyes squarely on the prize at the expense of everything else. It's impossible not to be drawn to him as he captures the essence of an artist who's got so much going on in his head with no outlet for it, while being charming, charismatic, needy, and devastating all at once. It's his movie, and it's a great performance.

Having changed the theater industry nearly two decades apart by introducing new kinds of sound to Broadway, Larson and Miranda have a lot in common. There's no question why Miranda would be drawn to Larson's struggle to find his footing in an ecosystem that doesn't like to change. You can sense a lot of love this director has for his subject, but more importantly, Tick, Tick… understands what it means to be a musical on celluloid. If Larson were still here, I think that would make him the happiest of all.