Synopsis: On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship, and the pressures to create something great before time runs out.
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, MJ Rodriguez, Richard Kind, Judith Light, Ben Ross
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: As a life-long RENThead and a true RENT-aholic*, I was already quite familiar with the 2001 off-Broadway production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! before it was made into a Netflix movie by musical theater Swiss Army Man Lin-Manuel Miranda. I was also aware that Miranda had starred in a smaller concert version of the show which seemed like a natural fit for him. Miranda, the multiple award-winning composer/lyricist behind In the Heights and the behemoth known as Hamilton was greatly influenced by RENT’s late composer, and the two have lead strikingly similar career paths. It’s not hard to see how Larson might have had the same type of trajectory as Miranda has rightfully enjoyed had he not passed away so tragically at age 35.
I had reached a bit of a Miranda saturation point when this film was announced and if I’m being really real with you (like, really really real), tick, tick…BOOM!! always felt like a minor cash-in on RENT’s juggernaut rocket ship took off. What started as a solo show by Larson was adapted into a one-act play that was a small success off-Broadway but nothing on the scale that RENT had. It went on to do quite well regionally but it served more to show that Larson was a good songwriter from the start…but that even good songwriters wrote some clunkers at the beginning as well. The impending arrival of the movie didn’t set off any major bells or whistles to me because it wasn’t one I felt strongly about either way.
So, take it from that perspective as I write that in the days since I’ve seen tick, tick…BOOM! I’ve been unable to get it out of my head, and not just the music. The performances given by the cast Miranda has assembled and what the director has brought to the screen surpasses anything that had been put onstage before. Screenwriter Steven Levenson bounces back from the disastrously bad adaptation of Dear Evan Hanson with a positively inspired take on how to further mold what was once a one-man show. Miranda takes all of these elements and then puts a Broadway polish on it all, the cherry on the top of what is already a musical theater fan’s starry-eyed dream come true.
While the 2001 stage version wasn’t as direct, the movie layers the real-life story of Larson’s life as a struggling artist over the existing script and it amazingly works. I wasn’t sure at first how much I wanted to see Larson’s life essentially made into a musical, an existing musical even, but everyone involved treats it with such respect, grace, and dignity that it doesn’t come off as either too serious or overly sentimental. This is sincere moviemaking through and through and if it had leaned in either direction too far it would have collapsed in on itself. Levenson’s screenplay is sturdy enough to hold together.
The glue, or cement rather, that solidifies it though is Andrew Garfield’s mesmerizing performance as Jonathan in what is without a doubt career-best work for the actor. Put aside the fantastic dramatics he brings to the more emotional side of the character but from all the documentaries, books, film clips, etc. I’ve seen over the years in conjunction with RENT, Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) has Larson the person down to an eerie “T”. He looks like the composer and easily conveys the charm everyone that knew him always speaks of. And when he’s not speaking, his singing is first rate. All the singing in the film is soaring and, in another extremely smart move, Miranda switches between Garfield as Larson performing the show with an onstage cast (including Bad Boys for Life’s Vanessa Hudgens and Broadway powerhouse leading man Joshua Henry, Winter’s Tale) and what are often their “real-life” (movie-wise) counterparts, Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) as girlfriend Susan and Robin de Jesus (The Boys in the Band) as Michael.
Much of the film (and the play) is leading to Larson’s composition of “the song”, a powerhouse ballad he’s been trying to create for his new show. Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (played by The Cabin in the Woods’s Bradley Whitford sometimes and the real man himself on voicemails) encouraged Larson to keep writing and, if you believe the musical, it’s his advice that kept him searching for this major movie moment. It’s very much worth waiting for and what existed onstage as a satisfying 11 o’clock number for an actress turns into something far more surprising here. Then there’s even more movie to come. I won’t spoil it but Miranda and company continue to blur the lines between what is the solo show, the musical, and the movie musical in clever ways throughout.
Sure, the musical retains at least one of the songs that fails pretty spectacularly (mostly because it sounds achingly like the title song from RENT) but then again you have to remember this was written first. Of all the movie musicals that have been released lately, this might be my absolute favorite in terms of overall success in transition from stage to screen. It’s hard to expand these worlds and while In the Heights worked wonders with its transition, what Levenson and Miranda have accomplished here with tick, tick…BOOM! is sort of amazing. The show now lives on in another completely new form separate from the original creation by Larson and the updated version reconstituted after his Pulitzer Prize winning musical became a revolutionary touchstone. I would never be so bold as to make a statement like “Jonathan Larson would have loved this.” but I can say that as someone that was so moved (and changed) by the work that Larson has put forth and a fan of his for decades, this was a monumental undertaking with an exceptional execution. Do not miss this one.
*What’s the difference between a RENThead and a RENT-aholic? Well, RENTheads are fans of the show that have seen it more than five times and have won the lottery to sit in the front two rows at least once. RENT-aholics have traveled across more than two state lines to see the show from any vantage point…and yes, I’m certified as both…and not just in NYC!