Before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the biggest modern Broadway hit was Jonathan Larson’s Rent. Inspired by Puccini’s La Bohème, it did an excellent job of capturing what life in was like in New York City in the 90’s for those who were struggling to make it. Unfortunately, the film version suffered from some relatively pedestrian direction by Chris Columbus and couldn’t quite capture the magic of the stage show. For this adaptation of Larson’s lesser-known show tick, tick… BOOM!, which was written and staged prior to Rent, Miranda takes on directorial duties and reminds us all just how a musical should be adapted for film.
The movie is presented as a live performance of tick, tick… BOOM! in its original format as a rock monologue in 1992. Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) sits at the piano and with backing vocals by his friends Roger (Joshua Henry) and Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), relays the tale of how he tried to get his first musical, Superbia, produced. We are then presented with flashbacks to the events being described, as he struggles to write one more song for the show, on the advice of advisor Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman). This single-minded focus begins to take its toll on his relationships with girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus), who both have their own struggles to contend with, her trying to decide whether or not to take a job as a dance instructor far outside of the city and him with the recent discovery that he has been diagnosed with AIDS.
There are a lot of similar themes here to those found in Rent, but there is a much heavier focus on the creative process, and some working through of Larson’s own issues. It doesn’t get too bogged down in behind-the-scenes minutiae however, so even those who have little or no interest in how a musical gets made will still be engaged. The music is wonderful throughout, and Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson’s decision to alter the original structure so as to include more music from Larson’s unproduced Superbia is a smart one, as it produces some of the highlights of the show. Andrew Garfield really shines throughout, capturing the idiosyncrasies that probably made his character somewhat difficult to live with, but still imbuing him with enough feeling that it’s impossible not to find him endearing. This is one of the better movie musicals in recent memory, with staging that is flashy when it needs to be but doesn’t feel like it’s trying to show off and is easily one of my favorite films of the year. ★★★★★
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, some suggestive material, and drug references.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor