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Review: tick, tick…BOOM! – “One of the best performances of Andrew Garfield’s career”

TICK, TICK…BOOM! Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson, in TICK, TICK…BOOM! Photo Credit: Macall Polay/NETFLIX ©2021

On January 25, 1996 at the age of 35, Jonathan Larson passed away suddenly from an aortic aneurysm.  The next night, his hit musical Rent premiered on Broadway.  The show must go on, as is tradition, even if in this case it was also heartbreaking.  Larson never got to see his show play on the stage he so admired, so coveted, so wished to revolutionize.  Yet, Rent kept on playing, for twelve years on Broadway and with tours in multiple countries.  He posthumously won numerous Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.  He changed the way stories were told, just as he always aimed to do, and influenced a new generation of creators, including this film’s director, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I first saw Rent when it toured Toronto back in 1997.  I was a teenager at the time, and to say it changed me would not be an understatement.  I think I probably begged my mom to take me to the show after seeing raves about it in Entertainment Weekly.  As a somewhat sheltered teen, and someone who until that moment had only seen traditional fare like Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables, I remember it being totally awkward to sit beside my mother while those on stage talked openly about sex and drugs and, gasp, even used the word ‘fuck.’  Yes, it all seems a lot tamer now than it was then, but it opened my eyes to a world I didn’t know much about.  It made me think. It made me feel.  It made me angry.  It made me want to ask questions, just like Jonathan Larson felt the need to ask questions.

This is to say, that this review isn’t exactly unbiased because of the admiration instilled deep within me for this musical theatre genius.  But my hope is that this film speaks for itself.

Before there was Rent, there was tick, tick…BOOM! a show that Larson called a ‘rock monologue.’  Larson himself performed it off Broadway and it told of his experiences and relationships while living and writing in New York, especially as he took to workshop a futuristic rock musical called Superbia, a project on which he’d been working for eight long years.  Larson felt immense pressure to get a show to Broadway before the age of 30 (after all Stephen Sondheim had his first show at 27), and his anxiety as he inched towards this upcoming milestone was palpable.

In this reimagining of tick, tick… BOOM, Miranda’s feature directorial debut, Larson is played by Andrew Garfield, himself a Tony Award winner.  This small off-Broadway show takes to the streets of New York City, the Moondance Diner where Jonathan waits tables to pay his bills, and the pool where he swims.  He lives in a small apartment with his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) and is in a serious relationship with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp).  But Jon struggles to make ends meet and to keep his relationships thriving as he obsesses over his upcoming workshop, even as he sees members of his groups of friends fall victim to the AIDS epidemic.  With the fragility of life ever apparent, Jon is led to a crossroads of having to decide what to do with his existence, with however much time he has left.

This is quite simply one of the best performances of Andrew Garfield’s career, an awards worthy portrayal made even more incredible by the fact that he had to learn to sing for the role.  You’d never know it as his vocals are quite strong.  So too though are those of the rest of the cast, including the aforementioned Robin de Jesús (who made his Broadway debut in Rent), Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon), Joshua Henry (who has been in productions of both In the Heights and Hamilton) and Vanessa Hudgens, whose duet with Garfield, “Therapy,” is an enjoyably humorous showcase of her talents.  While speaking roles only, the presence of Judith Light as Jon’s agent and Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim himself (and a good impersonation at that) round out an excellently cast ensemble.

We already know that Lin-Manuel Miranda has the talent and vision to bring a production to stage, but tick, tick… BOOM! holds the unique challenge of bringing what in essence started as a one man show, to life as a visually interesting feature film.  Miranda succeeds, layering his scenes well without ever being afraid to return to the intimacy of the stage – in fact the VERY stage on which Larson himself performed.  His attention to detail, working with a screenplay from Tony Award winning writer Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen), honours a man who was clearly an influence in Miranda’s life.  This means that fans of Rent will find plenty of little ‘Easter eggs’ along the way to make this experience even more memorable.

While tick, tick…BOOM! is clearly a movie by musical theatre lovers for musical theatre lovers, there’s still enough substance here for any casual viewer to enjoy.  From rock numbers like “30/90” to the Sondheim influenced “Sunday” and Garfield’s emotional last ballad, “Why” this musical holds enough appeal for most.  But more than that, tick, tick… BOOM! evolves from that small off Broadway show detailing a journey of self, to a fitting tribute commemorating the life of the creative force that was Jonathan Larson.  For he was a man who eventually did break the mould of how stories were told, and whose stories were told, on stage; who taught a generation of musical theatre goers to forget regret, to love and accept, to fight for your beliefs.  For as Jon discovers in tick, tick…BOOM! there truly is no day but today.

tick, tick… BOOM! is currently playing in theatres, and begins streaming on Netflix November 19th.

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